For Adham Shaikh, music embodies a certain sacredness that defies simplistic divisions of “acoustic” or “electronic.” Desiring to create bridges between different musical styles, within the fused roots of Shaikh’s tribal groove and dub-laced downtempo, he says he hopes to discover “the unpredictable creative thing that as a musician I am always seeking out.” His Fusion cd, consisting of groove-based ambient and dancefloor-driven worldbeat, is an audio illustration of its namesake. His latest CD Collectivity is another audio journey into world rhythms–all of it once again ridden on Shaikh’s joyous beats and polished production.
A lot of people know you as a dj but that’s not your roots?
No, in fact, deejaying came second. I’m a composer I guess first. I was a keyboard player. I played piano since I was about 5 or 6 and did the whole classical training Royal Conservatory things up to grade thirteen. And even got accepted into Queens University…I did 3 years of a music degree and then chose to interpret my composition professor’s statement of how he couldn’t really teach anyone how to compose but could show you how other people compose. But ultimately, if you wanted to find your voice you had to just listen to it. It wasn’t something you were going to learn in school.

So unfortunately or whatever, I interpreted that as get out of school and move out west, start chasing after my dream or this attraction or draw that I had towards electronic instruments.

When did you discover this attraction?
I discovered electronic music I guess in the 80s listening to Brave New Waves going to bed late at night with my hand on the cassette recorder clock radio, and if I would hear something interesting, I would record it. And try and find out who it was. It was my first experience with electronic music. I was about 15 or so. And then the school got a synthesizer in the music department and that was for me the moment of real interest in this instrument that was a piano in the sense of its interface, but that it just offered all this other tonality and sound that just seemed to be in a completely different world to conventional classical music.

Who were some of your early influences?
The first Kraftwerk album was the first thing I heard on Brave New Waves and from that on to other Kraftwerk. Also, it was the discovery of Tangerine
and Vangelis and I guess all around… in this small town in Ontario everyone was listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Brian Adams and stuff but there were also people listening to Pink Floyd and some of that was interesting but some of the culture surrounding it kind of kept me separated because I wasn’t one of those stoner guys wearing a Black Metallica T-shirt listening to Pink Floyd taking acid on the weekends. I never had any of those drug experiences till considerably later in my life. I guess that was the first.

Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears… I just began seeking out anybody that seemed to be making music with keyboards: Thomas Dolby, and Howard Jones back then. And from there it was also a discovery of industrial music and Front 242 and Ministry, and this other harder edge sound, which I guess coincided with my mom passing away. I started seeking out heavier, you know darker music, as a way of coming to terms with everything that happened in my life…

[Also] moving out west getting jobs in music stores, so I could buy equipment, meeting up with other people in the city interested in electronic instruments and music that could be made with them. And then in the early 90s, like 90 and 91, there were warehouse parties that sort of started mushrooming into raves. Some of the early raves were like 3000-4000 people. People busting into a warehouse on terminal avenue somewhere and throwing a party and being gone by the next day. That sort of introduced us to this whole European sound that further influenced all the electronic music that we were all writing and that was like early Orbital and the first Orb record. I remember when that first came out…with a friend, we were staying up all night and he put it on in the morning and it was quite an amazing experience to hear all these sounds that we knew so well, just put in a different context.

So I just continued morphing and building. I started playing techno with another fellow Dan Handrabur. We had a project called Extron and it was myself and Dan and a couple of other guys Chris and Steve and we all had keyboards. We all used to get together at this big concrete apartment in West Georgia, which we dubbed it the energy dome. And we used to have these all-night acid trips where there’d be like five keyboard players just jamming all night. That was really the beginning of this kind of psychedelic influence and this doorway to starting to understand music really accessed different types of spaces. It was very much a journey mechanism, and it was very much a key, and it was also unlocking frequency patterns in your brain–whether they were giving you pleasure or expanding your kind of perspective senses. It all came back through sound. These jams were sort of the beginning a number of composers. Phil Western had come to a few of them and Stephan Novak who is Pilgrims of the Mind. He went on to release a couple of classic records on Map Music a number of years ago.

So you step away from playing the piano?
I think it was the sound thing and on another level portability. The fact that a piano is not a portable instrument. Portable keyboard instruments basically were the accordion and that quickly was not the cool thing at the time. So I think those things and the sound. The fact that you could make sounds that evolved and changed, and they weren’t like all the pop and rock and stuff that was happening.

What brought you into the ambient music realm?

…In the early 90s hanging out with Phil Western who introduced me to Brian Eno. It was right around the time I was really coming to a point of seeing around me the chemical possession of the musical scene. People were coming over to my studio with bags of mystery powders and piling them on the coffee table and staying for three days – four days. And it was like wait a minute, this is
not a healthy sustainable way for me to go. I don’t have any trouble with things right now, but I totally felt like if I did not totally do something drastic right then, I would. And I saw people starting to get sucked off on tangents. That was my real discovery of ambient music and chill-out and the concept of
chill-out in contemporary music. [It was] trying to find music that really soothed the spirit and added soul and spirit and passion and emotion into a music that was quickly becoming a very emotionless machine-like thing that very much was rolling with those white refined powders that themselves were disconnecting people, making them emotionless all sped up. The music and these drugs fed off each other and it was just not my deal.

That was my real discovery of ambient music and the philosophy’s of Brian Eno and just understanding different concepts of composition. There were other ways of envisioning the creative processes. Eno was someone who talked about studying plant and animal life growth patterns and mapping those into music, the Fibonacci sequence, and how that sounds musically-that pattern. From there it was discovering other artists that were also pioneering that sound: The Orb, and Aphex Twins. Even more locally just what we were all doing with each other was really inspiring. I remember going to Phil’s studio and hearing ambient tracks
that he wrote that were just amazing. Dan and Stephan Novak there were a number of people…

From there it was also meeting with other guys from the states who were traveling up and also connecting with other djs who were playing more upbeat stuff, but were somehow bringing more soul and spirit into it.

Doc Martin
was like a huge dj. For me he was one of the first djs who really showed me a subtle window in a very humble not proclaimed the shaman aspect of journeying with music and using records and finding sounds to unlock different ways of thinking. There were definitely times when dancing to his sets where you felt like he was talking directly into your head with his records and dropping samples. And you would hear a little sample and it would trigger a thought process, and you would look up and he’d be looking right at you and he’d just do a little wink and you were like Dan holy crap and there was magic. There was stuff happening.

From there it led to meeting this amazing guitarist in Bellingham who was living in my friend’s basement [Tim Floyd]. And he turned out to be this beautiful soul who just played guitar in such an ambient spirit without any awareness of any of that. This was just how he played the guitar. He just picked it up, sit in a corner, and be playing, and he would just enter these spaces.

So, we went on to eventually make the Drift record and I went down to a little island in the states, Lummi Island. My friend lent me his cabin for a couple a months and I snuck a bunch of equipment through the border we went and set up a little recording studio in the woods and just played around for a couple of months. We went for walks in the woods with DAT recorders, banged on logs, and played water rhythms in the water, beats in the water and found bits of garbage and made music out of them: old bicycle tires and we tuned the spokes, and all of a sudden you had a sequencer and you could perform on that…I remember him playing a 10-minute drum journey on a manifold that he bought for his motorcycle by tapping all the different holes. It made like this amazing musical instrument, and we just recorded it and made loops out of it.

You also produce living in the Kootneys why did you move away from the urban centre, which has traditionally been the home of electronic producers?
It was all happening at the same time as Journey to the Sun and Drift and connecting with these folks, the hippies if you want to call them: staying up and going camping on the beach by full moon, and sitting around with a bunch of friends and talking and sharing ideas, and hearing acoustic guitar and all these other kinds of experiences that just started fulfilling me in a way that the city was not fulfilling me. There was something missing, and I just felt that I had to somehow get out.

It’s funny I came full circle. I grew up on a farm 100 acres. I used to go camping in my backyard. We had beaver dams and all sorts of stuff, but I couldn’t wait to get to the city – you know the big lights and the glitter… and somehow going through all that and seeing into it and seeing to the bottom of it. For me, it was ultimately empty for what I somehow was feeling that I was wanting. And I guess the combination of wanting to hear that in my music or wanting to hear music and feeling like there was a need for more warm, and even the word organic is kind of a weird one now, but something that is somehow more connected with life infused patterns… not machine infused ones, which is a totally strange thing cause it’s all done on machines. But humans built those machines, so there is another level of intelligence and pattern and order in there. At some level these things they come alive. Computers are alive. I definitely have connections with computers I have worked with over the years.

I lived in Vancouver for 8 years and I never knew anything about the Gulf Islands. When I stood in English Bay and looked out, I thought that little tip of what you saw just out there was not even Vancouver Island. I thought it was just a little rock somewhere and basically straight out was Japan. An then it was discovering Vancouver Island was there and then all of the sudden these Gulf Islands and all these communities that were living outside of the city. [People] living in little cabins and living closer to a simpler life, they are not making $5000 dollars a month but they are not spending $4000 a month. They had $200 a month rent in a cabin, and they’re happy to just do some gardening and make stuff or whatever. And whatever it was that made people want to get out of the city was the same thing making me want that, and it was the same thing that was coming out in my music and that was further inspiring me and reconnecting me to that growing awareness that I needed to be in a more green alive environment.

What’s the creative trade-off?
Sound is certainly one. I find cities so noisy. It was a big thing when we did the Drift record of really coming to the awareness of how noisy our environment is and how that ultimately overtime numbs us to our subtler sensitivity of hearing the sound of your fingers rubbing together and being able to hear the little molecules of that sound or grains of sound and things once we got out and were running around in the woods. It was amazing; we could never make a recording that was ever longer than 6 or 7 minutes were there not an airplane or a helicopter or a chainsaw or some manmade engine noise would come in. But the longer we spent out in the woods listening to the natural sound patterns the more we started hearing some sort of of infinite complex ordered orchestra of sound, this like cosmic universe symphony playing out all the time that once we got out of the noisy manmade environments, we started hearing, which reinfused a belief and desire to somehow find a way to somehow infuse that into music that was also made with computers.

Building bridges between those two worlds allows people to come from one to the other and be able to have contrast, so that if you go to the other all of a sudden you can see. It wasn’t until I left and went and started sleeping out on the beach in the open stars by a campfire for weeks and weeks that I started realizing that the city was a toxic environment. It wasn’t giving me the health that I wanted, and whenever I lived in Vancouver I was always dirt broke, totally depressed, and questioning what the hell I was doing all the time, but whenever I was not in Vancouver I was content.

[The city] It’s a great place to meet people. I still come to the city all the time and meet people. I see that I am blessed paradoxically.That cities are there, and people are like minded, can attract and come together and do things. I also see it in BC there are tribal communities that are all connected that we’ve kind of moved outside of the city. The coming paradigms are also about knowing how to grow food and having the ability and resources to learn how to do those things. And to take survival at primal levels, to both be humbled by and to realize there’s coming a time when those are going to be really invaluable skills. That this present situation is just an out-of-control train going off a cliff. We still got the option. We’ve got parachutes. We got lots of cushions, and we can instantly believe ourselves not on the train and start creating something different and we can be off the train. We don’t have to go off the edge of the cliff, and that’s what I am seeing now in all these communities all popping up reaffirming each other. We are kind of moving through just criticizing and slagging what’s all wrong with our societal situation, and we’re all just getting together and creating a new model and living in it and living our actions instead of just trying to dismantle the shit that’s there. We’re just moving out and we are learning how to be self-sustainable in the 21st century, so at this point, that means having a lap top and doing shit on the internet in the middle of the woods and still being able to get pay pal in your bank account – hey man whatever it takes. It’s sustainable and it’s giving us the ability to derive sustenance without having to be in the city, so that’s further reaffirming individual health and their connection with the forest. The connection with for me living outside in rural areas has brought me a lot more face-to-face with deforestation and logging, how sacred our watersheds are and how in the city you get disconnected from that. In the city you just turn on the tap and there you go.

… For me I ended up getting a bus and living in the bus for six or seven years with no running water no bathroom nothing. I became very aware of how much water I was using, how much garbage I was bringing into my bus, how I could recycle, how I could change my decision about what crap I was buying. Living in a bus really showed me those things in a really closed system and also how I could live lightly, so when I drove my bus away you wouldn’t know that I was necessarily there. That brought me even further around to rural communities to connect with people that were living in these ways. Which further seemed to be connected with the sound of music I was writing. As I started seeing all these communities and started playing with these communities becoming tribal in some sense.

You started out in a city though. Do you think an up-and-coming music artist needs to have some experience in the city and that exposure to hone their craft?
It really depends on your path, what is motivating you from inside and what fires your engines when you wake up in the morning. I think that from a musician’s perspective in a more traditional way; playing shows and gigging and developing music, and developing the ability to stand in front of people and present your stuff and not feel like you wish there was a hole in the stage you could crawl into, learning the energy dynamics of people, those types of things, ultimately if those are things you need to develop to help you on your path then probably cities are a good place to do that . They certainly are a good place to learn about temptation and excess and unhealth and all those different types of things. If you come with stars in your eyes ready to sign a deal with the devil well, hey man, that can happen too, and everybody ultimately in their creative processes I think ends up at crossroads where they start making those types of decisions or have to. They have to really look at why am I here, where am I going, what do I have to do. For as much as I’ve made those decisions in the past they still keep coming up, and I still wonder what the heck I’m doing.

My whole creative writing music writing thing we’ve been talking about, after the Drift record I got this idea to make a mobile recording studio, which brought me to Ontario to find an old bus and make a studio, which brought me to meeting the Interchill guys, and going to Montreal and living there and meeting some world musicians there and making the Ekko record and that whole thing which then brought me back out to the west coast.

When was that?
That was around 98- 99 around there. I left the west and went back east to create a bus, and my brother still lived on our old farm, so that seemed like a great place to create this thing. And from there it was like a little tangent detour of a year and a half –two years to Montreal to connect with this whole community of people that were kind of the same as the people on the west coast– looking for something deeper. A lot more people in Montreal had been to India and had eastern world experience. There’s a huge African community there. Montreal’s a vibrant city with vibrant music scenes.

And so that whole thing and connecting with all those musicians was my real further fusing of live instruments and soul and unpredictable harmonic patterns that live instruments do with predictable…. electronic things, and creating this fusion and trying to bring both worlds together and find a way of creating dialogue and bridges between these different musical styles. What is it about big fat beats on a sound system that really drive us in a primal way to dancing that sometimes listening to acoustic music it doesn’t have enough umf. Perhaps some of that also because we are a bit desensitized living in this technological civilization that we need a little bit more umf to get the engine going, but having the soul and the ancient traditions and ancient histories of music and sound that Indian disciplines brought, that the African disciplines brought, that all this other music of cultures around the world brought, just seemed to be really for me that new place of energy exchange and the cutting edge and excitement and the unpredictable creative thing that as a musician I am always into seeking out– the
unpredictable and the unknown.

Release Dec 1st 2006

Shaikh’s new CD Collectivity, his fourth solo album, brings together North African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Japanese and Australian in a rhythmic interplay between live instruments and Shaikh’s seamless electronic production. Collectivity also features remixes of Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek and Six Degree favorite Issa Bagayogo.

Article by Romina Wendell first published for Exclaim, June 2005