The Big Mango is a nickname for Cairo, and Sam Shalabi has just made the album that Cairo needs. Recorded during the euphoria of the Arab Spring, The Big Mango is about to be released in what some might call the Arab Fall: a time in which hopes have been dashed, lives have been lost, regimes have been in uproar. This is an intensely trying time for the people of Egypt, caught in a cycle of indignation, mourning and despair. Even Shalabi’s stated themes ~ the status of women in Islamic culture, the idea that radical shifts need not be threatening ~ are sublimated by the larger story. As “a love letter to Cairo (and its) beautiful, surreal, madness”, The Big Mango succeeds through the sheer vibrancy of its music. This album celebrates the diversity of international culture and sound, sharing a valuable message that can be universally applied.
The album begins with the sounds of water, traffic, fire and moans, a disorienting mix that becomes even odder with the addition of wordless vocals and strings. This tune-up leads to a more accessible instrumental piece, “Second Skin”, whose piano intro provides the album’s most western segment. (Despite its pedigree, the album was recorded in Montreal). After this, the album becomes a happy free-for-all, as the 20-piece Land of Kush orchestra gets to strut its stuff. Five female vocalists are on hand, as well as multiple international instruments, including tabla, barafon, darbuka and riqq. And look! Constellation perennial Rebecca Foon (Esmerine) contributes cello as well, blessing the project with her presence.
The super-funky “The Pit (Part 1)” is an early highlight, featuring savage saxophone, hand-clapping rhythms, groovy vocals (Ariel Engle) and a sweet breakdown in the final two minutes. This is the sort of music that begs to be heard live, outdoors, perhaps at a bazaar or local market. As the tracks bleed into each other, this feeling continues. As active as the vocalists may be (performing on roughly half of the tracks), The Big Mango belongs to the multi-ethnic players, who seem to be just as comfortable lounging around (“Mobil Nil”) as they do rocking (“Drift Beguine”) or jamming out (“St Stefano”). The Big Mango mixes jazz, funk, global music and improvisation, spotlighting a single word: life. Cairo may be an injured city right now, in an injured country, experiencing a tragic loss of life. But life continues to go on, as do the injured hopes and indomitable spirit of a nation. (Richard Allen)
Release date: October 1