Nesrallah: Stone Roots
by Roxanna E. Bauer
Victor Nesrallah, an artist rooted in traditions, has achieved many accomplishments in pursuing his musical career. Nesrallah released independent albums as a singer/ songwriter that have become known internationally. Besides musical performance, he also specialises in production and education.
Born in Ottawa, Canada, March 21st, 1952, Nesrallah is a third generation Canadian of Syrian origin. He was exposed at an early age to music that would influence his whole life and future career. His family provided a musical environment. Nesrallah attended ethnic Middle Eastern concerts with his parents. He grew up as part of St. Elijah’s Syrian Orthodox Church and sang all kinds of cultural folk songs at its functions. His environment was even more musically enlightened due to his brothers being musicians as well. They played guitar, percussion and sang together. In high school, he and his brothers played clarinet, saxophone and percussion with the school band. They all went on to pursue music; his brother Stephan is a singer/ songwriter as well and his brother Philip, a percussionist. The three of them are singers and multi-instrumentalists. Victor Nesrallah, for example, plays guitar, piano, percussion, darabuka and the ud.
His career and achievements are the outcome of his determination to make performing and composing music his profession. “The only way to learn about the very nature of music is to play it if one is talented. I didn’t go to the School of Rock or enter a contest so I could call myself a musician. Music has always been my passion and when the time was right, I decided to explore and study a more formal approach to music by earning a degree.” Nesrallah completed a Bachelor of Music (Honours), a jazz degree in piano performance, from Carleton University in 1999 and a Bachelor of Education from Ottawa University in 2001.
Besides being a professional musician, producer and composer, Nesrallah is also a recording artist, a sound recording engineer, teacher and owner of Free Flying Sound, his recording studio. He teaches Guitar and English at The Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, “one of Canada’s top 20 high schools according to Maclean’s Magazine”. His guitar class has become popular among students there. “For Beginning and Intermediate players alike, this course is taught by music industry professional Victor Nesrallah who brings a wealth of experience as both a player and educator to the classroom.” He is a seasonal lecturer at The Audio Recording Academy in Ottawa. In 1999, 2000, he was a researcher and writer for the Canadian Music Heritage Society. One of his compositions was inspiration for the short film The Picture and Victor composed sound for New Ottawa Repertoire Theatres production of Neal Beal's Two Small Bodies. He has also made musical arrangements for several Ottawa based artists and has produced and recorded many well-known Ottawa artists. He has also recorded and produced Tony D Band who is quoted, on his website, praising Nesrallah as “a great musician, and an excellent singer and an excellent producer and a great engineer, because he's basically been playing acoustic his whole life. And he's really been monumental in giving me the confidence to do this."
Nesrallah is the composer and recipient of numerous awards and composition grants including The Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton, The Ontario Arts Council, FACTOR, Rawlco Communications Stars Program and The Canada Council. He has won cash contests, competitions and grants. By winning these, he recognises and appreciates the “acknowledgement of [his] work assessed by peers.” In 1986, he won a CBC song writing contest for his song Flying and it was recorded. He has made appearances on radio and television for commercial and public broadcasting both nationally and internationally.
Nesrallah began playing professionally in 1979. His albums, Based In Blues, 2004; Blood From the Stone, 1999; Always Dreaming, 1994; Inside Out, 1990; Victor Nesrallah, 1988, have received wide recognition within certain circles. The ‘All About Jazz’ website posts an article about Nesrallah’s latest album, Based In Blues, by John Kelman who describes it as having “a fresh, rootsy vibe that makes for an engaging listen.” Nesrallah describes his own album Blood From The Stone as “ahead of its time” in that it combines Middle Eastern and Western traditions in a world-based roots album. “This recording was selected among thirteen Canadian World Beat artists and showcased as part of the Canadian Caravan at WOMEX 2000 Berlin.” Nesrallah described the genre of his album Always Dreaming as pop. It got full production airplay because of its classification as such. His first album, released in 1988 on vinyl, he describes as folk and bluesy.
Growing up in such an eclectic musical environment, Nesrallah became influenced by many things. “No individual record stands out apart from that first Beatles album Twist and Shout.” In the 1960s, he was influenced by anything popular. He listened to big bands, jazz, Canadian folk roots, Kingston Trio, early Gordon Lightfoot, New Christy Minstrels, ‘Harry Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall’, Frank Sinatra; ‘Strangers in the Night’, Louis Armstrong, The Beatles and all things British. Also, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry as well as rhythm and blues bands. He also listened to ethnic groups, such as Mohamed El Bakr and Fairouz. “[His] influences are varied over the spectrum.” He got into singer/ songwriter music of which his earliest influences were Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Carpenter, Bruce Cockburn and Bob Dylan, and traditional roots and blues artists; Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Willy Dixon, Muddy Waters and Taj Mahal. From these influences, Nesrallah developed a “roots based catalogue” from folk, blues, rock and worldbeat. “Nesrallah’s laid-back style adapts easily to everything from folk to world music and more.”
Nesrallah comments in his liner notes for his album Based In Blues, “The Blues has always presented itself as a kind of music that inspires the emotional, the spiritual, a multitude of feelings and rejoice if one can say.”
Nesrallah was much influenced by early radio too, especially CKGM. “Radio’s changed alot,” he says. He ties this view in with his criticism of the ever-changing music industry and with what he calls the ‘star programs’ of consumption economics. The idea of a star, sold by popular media through mediums like Canadian Idol, demeans the artist’s achievements. “Songwriters call themselves so by writing a verse and a chorus, but it’s more than that. Inspiration can only bring you so far. The craft gets you across bridges but there are conventions that people don’t learn that are part of the craft. People don’t bother learning theory or music history but they don’t realise that creativity and structure are opposite sides to the same coin.” Nesrallah criticises the music industry and society today as expecting instant gratification. “Although technology offers every luxury to make our own CDs, it has saturated the market with people that expect instant gratification with a craft that takes years to develop and creates a misconstrued notion of what an artist is.” Nesrallah links this saturation with Ottawa’s depleting music scene, in which there used to be many more concerts and it’s changed since the past 20 years. He criticises the readily available technology that makes it possible for people to record half a song and repeat it to make it whole. It makes for a “watered down quality of material. Anyone can record a CD but not anyone can perform.”
“Everywhere you turn, everybody’s got CDs, but not a lot of people are writing good melodies. In a nutshell, in the Canadian music industry, there’s only so much pride to go around. Artists are here today and gone tomorrow [to feed the consumption economics of star programs].” This is why Nesrallah has always worked as an independent artist.
Nesrallah’s home studio Free Flying is located in downtown Ottawa. Other than recording Ottawa artists such as Tony D Band, James Cohen, Larry Motham, Vince Halfhide, Sue Foley, John Mooley and over a dozen more, this is where Nesrallah records his own albums. He records solo songs, duo songs and songs performed by bands for which he hires musicians. He has a core group who he describes as “some of Ottawa’s finest musicians,” who he has developed a “musical working relationship with.”
Nesrallah is grateful for his ability, as a true artist, to communicate to a wide audience through song. “There’s something about every show …if you connect with someone or a bunch of people… that’s what it’s all about.” He remembers a couple telling him that they got married because they listened to one of his songs. He loves the interaction that a live show provides. When he tours at schools in the Ottawa area, he makes a connection with the kids, “that’s what it’s all about.” Nesrallah once played guitar for a French singer at a show at the ‘Festival Franco-Ontarien’ in front of 25000 people. That’s a lot of people to connect with. He has also played two shows at The National Arts Centre, at the Ottawa Bluesfest, the Carleton University Alumni Theatre, the Ottawa Folk Festival , the Rideau Hall Summer Series, the Cultures Canada Astolab Theatre, the Acoustic Waves Series and at the Ottawa Arts Court.
At all these places, Nesrallah has inspired, as well as at most every Ottawa venue, where he plays weekly. The inspiration he invokes is like the inspirations once invoked in him. One of Nesrallah’s most prominent experiences as a listener of music was when he was 11 years old on a school trip to the old Capital Theatre in Ottawa to see the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. “The sound of the orchestra was amazing to my ears at that age.” Music followed him his whole life and he was inspired and awestruck many other times. “While growing up in Ottawa, I was fortunate to hear the origins and roots of so many of today’s musical styles, the Blues. The Cafe Hibou, The Beacon Arms Hotel, Squires Tavern, tent show bands at the “Coppertone Revue”; there was something visceral about the emotions inspired by the musicians who performed on those stages. Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, James Cotton, Albert Collins, Taj Mahal and Luther Allison, draw to mind some of the most exhilarating blues performances I witnessed. Whether it was the Georgia Sea Island Singers at Mariposa Folk (Center Island) or the intimacy of a dimly lit and smokey juke joint, where one man and a guitar told his story, the traditions of the music have always been the same to me, a story and a feeling.” Old blues singers’ shows, jazz shows, ethnic Middle-Eastern concerts, folk festivals, Nesrallah defines as “moments I remember in life.”
Although Nesrallah grew up as part of a Syrian Orthodox church, religion plays no inspirational role for him. “I am not affected by any organized religion but I believe in the old saying; what goes around comes around.” He grew up in both rural and urban homes in his early years which perhaps inspired his folk and blues directions. Natural environments now provide his escape. “I teach at a downtown high school so my summer’s are spent trying to get away, away from the rat-race. Cities are everywhere.”
Nesrallah is still active in performing shows any chance he can get. He is working on some new recordings and plans on touring the summer of 2006. He ensures that he will “continue on loose roots stuff.” He is still as attracted to folk and roots music as ever he was because of the “honesty of the music.”
*all uncited quotations are from a personally recorded interview with Nesrallah*
All About Jazz. 2006: www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=19895
Tony D Band. 2004: www.tonydband.com/news/2001/article05.jsf
Victor Nesrallah.: www.freeflyingmusic.com