To hear David Halabisky, the titular head of Halabisky’s Uprising, tell it, the idea of the Slaying Maya album was a bit of a lark.
“The whole thing started as a joke,” says Halabisky, the Canadian saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist now based in Paris, France. “We were going to do this big production with improvised music and a narrator. The original idea was that my friend [J.J. Walters] that wrote the book [Slaying Maya] wanted to do a musical score where he would narrate the whole book and I would do background music, but I didn’t think it would work.”
The idea stuck, though. And by mid-2011 what was somewhere between a dare and an ambitious pipe dream began its evolution into the Slaying Maya album, built upon Walters’ life story.
“The book’s loosely a biography about his life,” says Halabisky. “He’s of Indian descent, so he talks about his family, his parents coming to Canada. But then it jumps forward to him becoming an adult and all the decisions he faces as an adult trying to be responsible. But he’s also got some tension with his family background because he was also raised in a very traditional Indian household and there’s some clashes there with western culture.
“So the concept of Slaying Maya, Maya is kind of a deity in his culture, and she tries to lead you astray with whatever vice you may have — women, drugs, alcohol, whatever, short term pleasures — and the concept is kind of sewn throughout the book where he’s wrestling with a lot of these notions and the decisions he makes.”
Halabisky takes this concept and turns it into a fluid, fascinating aural adventure filled with award-winning MCs and world-renowned singers bringing Walter’s narrative to unique life.
That worldwide cast includes rappers D-Sisive, Moka Only, Kyprios and Ritallin, singers Elizabeth Shepherd, Amalia Townsend, Jessica Stuart, Melissa Laveaux and Brent Weatherall, as well as a growling introduction from Blackie and the Rodeo Kings frontman Tom Wilson. Each vocalist tackles a chapter of the book. Sometimes literally taking lines from it, sometimes through lyrics written by Halabisky, and sometimes through only vaguely connected freestyling.
Recording Slaying Maya was a complicated process considering Halabisky had never met (and still hasn’t met) some of the far-flung contributors.“
Tom Wilson actually came to my apartment in Paris and did his vocals there,” says Halabisky, who performed almost all the music on the album except for the drums. “Kyprios I have never met. Amalia, we go way back, we had common friends back in high school. D-Sisive I had never met. Melissa’s a good friend of mine from way back, she used to live in Ottawa as well, and then Brent was the singer in my live band. Ritallin was someone I had worked with off and on for the last decade. Jessica and I had crossed paths, we had played a number of shows together, Moka I’ve worked with before, and Elizabeth I knew kind of through email. I had met her briefly at one of her shows but I don’t know her. I was pretty surprised everybody was pretty enthusiastic.”
The contributors had good reason to be enthusiastic, though, because Slaying Maya is a unique concept album. Operating in the rarified world Halabisky likes to call “alternative jazz,” the vocalists weave iridescent stories from the book together, all backed by Halabisky’s mellifluous and often adventurous playing.
For Halabisky making Slaying Maya wasn’t just a musical exercise — it was personal. Walter’s book held tremendous meaning for him.
“A large part of the draw to this project was the parallels he had to my life,” says Halabisky. “He came from a completely different background from my life — his family, his culture — but still everything he went through were things that I went through, the decision to move away from your family and all the things that you wrestle with in that kind of decision, and moving for work, or moving for school, and the struggles with leaving all my friends.
“In the book the character grew up in Vancouver, I grew up in Vancouver. He moved to Toronto to go to school, I moved to Toronto to go to school. He moved to Ottawa for work, I moved to Ottawa for work. And I think he’s a year younger than me, but a lot of the references about bars and the places that the story takes place are places I know and places I have been. So the character and I are different, but we’re the same.”
Halabisky says making the album was about achieving certain goals. By bringing in all these collaborators he created something he had never done before.
“I generally do weird stuff just for my own amusement. A lot of people will say, ‘yeah that’s cool,’ but it’s not the sort of thing that people will put on in their house. I wanted to make a record that was a bit more listenable,” says Halabisky, who credits the various vocalists with involved with helping him slay his own musical Maya.
“I’m proud of the people I’ve got involved in the project. I’m huge fans of everybody, I’ve got huge respect for everybody, which is why I was able to relinquish control and what created that level of comfort for me. Because I just knew that I was a fan of their body of work so I just trusted that if they were enthusiastic about the project they would put in the effort and do a good job.
“And they did.”