Joseph Shabason renounced his religious upbringing, but it still shapes his music

'It's therapy through music for me,' says the saxophonist, who continues his diaristic album approach with The Fellowship.

'It's therapy through music for me,' says the saxophonist, who continues his approach with The Fellowship

Joseph Shabason releases his new album, The Fellowship, on April 30. (Courtesy)

By Jesse Locke, writer, editor, podcaster and musician based in Toronto.

Joseph Shabason has never shied away from autobiography in his art. The Toronto saxophonist, who has collaborated with Destroyer, F--ked Up and Hannah Georgas, has made a name for himself with a series of solo releases exploring ambient soundscapes through deeply personal perspectives. Shabason's latest album, The Fellowship, continues this diaristic approach with songs based on his unique upbringing in a Jewish and Islamic dual-faith household, the insular community his parents joined during his childhood, and the ongoing effects of renouncing his religion as an adult.

"It's therapy through music for me," Shabason said during a Zoom call with CBC Music. "Making this album is a way of engaging with something that's shaped my whole life, for better or for worse. I have a lot of anger towards religion, but this was a way to approach it with curiosity."

On Shabason's 2017 debut album, Aytche, the song "Westmeath" features an archival BBC recording of an unnamed man discussing his father's traumatic experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and the ultimate decision to end his own life. "He was the son of Greek parents who survived Auschwitz and was experimented on by Dr. Mangele," Shabason explained. "I have no personal connection other than having relatives who went through similar experiences. What he said really resonated."

While none of Aytche's songs focus directly on degenerative illness, the format of storytelling set to music inspired Shabason to interview his mother Anne about her struggles with Parkinson's disease. These intimate spoken-word clips are woven throughout his sophomore album, also named Anne. "Doing the interviews gave us an excuse to talk in depth about her illness and how she was dealing with it," Shabason detailed. "Having the mic rolling broke down some emotional barriers and let both of us be honest."

The road to the Fellowship

The Fellowship, which will be released April 30, takes its name from the religious group attended by Shabason and his parents, stepping through the saxophonist's life chronologically with instrumental songs named after major events. The group was guided by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi sheik who emigrated from Sri Lanka to Philadelphia in 1971. Shabason's father, Stan, a jazz pianist, was introduced to the mystical Islamic teachings of Bawa by a friend studying with celebrated drum teacher Jim Blackley, who had become a devoted follower. 

After Stan shared his discovery of Bawa's teachings, Anne made the first trip to Philadelphia Fellowship house on her own, before returning with her husband six times until the sheik's passing in 1982. This led to the foundation of the Toronto Fellowship, a smaller group gathering in the homes of Bawa's Canadian congregation, uniting members from various religious backgrounds. "Some members were Muslims from different traditions," Stan explained in a separate Zoom conversation. "Some were Muslim converts who embraced Bawa's Sufi brand of Islam and ritual prayer. Others like us never thought of ourselves as Muslims, but wanted to learn from the universal wisdom." 

After listening to recordings of Bawa when they congregated, the Toronto Fellowship members discussed what they understood, and concluded with a Muslim prayer song. "Bawa's talks were always followed by a question-and-answer period," Stan continued, detailing the compassionate environment created by the Fellowship. "Once I saw a person sitting in front of him rudely eating while he spoke. At the end of his talk, Bawa lovingly asked him if he had enough to eat."

Anne and Stan Shabason experienced their own hardships during childhood. Anne's father was a dentist who devoted his spare time to woodworking, photography, and collecting postmarks. She describes him as "distant and controlling." Stan's parents were Polish Holocaust survivors who lived in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, for three years after World War II, immigrating to Canada in 1951. While surrounded by fellow survivors in the traditional Jewish community of North York, their relationship was affected by his father's occasionally volatile temper.

After attending Hebrew day school until age 14, Stan transferred to a public high school, where he met Anne. Their budding romance bloomed after university while working together on a project called the Toronto Free Film Festival. At no cost to audiences, the travelling series hosted screenings of arty titles from the National Film Board at senior living homes, reform schools, and Nathan Phillips Square. "That was fun, and it was when I fell for her," Stan said with a smile.

As a pair of young artists coming of age in the 1970s, Anne and Stan were accustomed to alternative lifestyles. After her second year at York University, Anne travelled to Japan for several years, where she lived and apprenticed with a potter's family. She returned to Toronto to sell ceramic art, before switching her creative medium to papier-mâché furniture, and then spiritually themed paintings when she began her teachings with Bawa.

Stan followed a traditional path in music until his teenage years, studying piano in the classical conservatory system before deciding that he wanted to play jazz. Linking up with trumpeter and flugelhornist Fred Stone, Stan performed Afro-Cuban arrangements and supplemented his income by playing commercial music with various bands. One of these opportunities was accompanying a former winner of the Miss Nude Canada pageant.

"We all wore capes," Stan said, laughing. "They wanted the guys in the band to dance nude, but I refused. It wasn't my cup of tea."

After years of performing in jazz clubs and hotels six nights a week, Stan turned 30 as he and Anne became parents to Joseph. At this time, Stan switched his focus to selling construction supplies, moving the young family to the rural community of Bolton, Ont., to build up a sales clientele. This life change is depicted in Shabason's song "Escape From North York" on The Fellowship, cheekily referencing John Carpenter's 1981 film

In an article for The Talkhouse, the saxophonist shares his recollections on the decision: "At a certain point they knew that unless they escaped the city and distanced themselves from their families, they would never have the space to really discover what they were searching for."

Yet after reading these words, Stan explained how their motivations behind the move differed from what his son believed. "We got married and decided we wanted to live in a rural setting away from the noise, density and pollution of the city," he said. "It really had nothing to do with getting away from our families. In fact, we came into the city to visit both sets of parents every weekend until they all passed away."

Growing up in Bolton, Joseph remembers "being the only Jewish family in a town of 8,000 people — and a Jewish family who also happened to be Muslims." This dual-faith lifestyle meant they went to Synagogue on Saturdays, celebrating the Jewish high holidays of Hanukkah and Purim. At the same time, the Shabasons travelled to Toronto every Sunday to attend Fellowship prayer meetings on the teachings of Bawa and the Qur'an.

"As a kid, religion was the most comforting thing," Joseph said. "It gave me purpose and a sense of certainty. It wasn't quite a feeling of superiority, but I felt like I had it figured out. I would pray every night and talk to God whenever I felt lost. It totally relieved me of any kind of introspection, and I would think 'F--k it, God's got me.' If I had a problem, I would just talk to him and feel good afterwards. It was like a warm blanket."

When he became a teenager, Joseph was exposed to various forms of rebellion that contradicted the teachings of both Bawa and Judaism. Watching friends begin to date as they experimented with drugs and alcohol became tantalizing temptations. He described his middle school years — captured in The Fellowship's suite of songs "0-13," "13-15," and "15-19" — as a confusing time of cognitive dissonance. 

"I couldn't talk about it with my parents, because that would mean admitting what I was doing," Joseph said. "There was the security of religion mixed with these things that I knew I shouldn't be doing, but also couldn't stop. It's sad to think about how many of my formative experiences that should have just been fun or exciting were tinged with tremendous guilt."

'Straight edge was handed to me on a silver platter'

While he continued to sweat through these mental gymnastics, Joseph found solace in the culture of straight-edge punk, where practitioners refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, and other recreational drugs. Forming an emo punk band with the sarcastic name Martini, he spent his weekends at all-ages shows sharing stages with groups such as the Weakerthans, Constantines and Moneen. 

"Straight edge was handed to me on a silver platter," Joseph said with a laugh. "It's a cool reason not to drink or do drugs. From Grade 9 to Grade 12 I had this brilliant disguise and didn't have to think anymore. It was the same as religion. You can turn off your mind because you've bought into the philosophy."

All of these things that I hadn't questioned for a long time all started failing at once. For the first time I had to engage with the things I actually liked and wanted for myself.- Joseph Shabason

His real reckoning took place at the University of Toronto, where Joseph studied comparative world religions (once again name-checked in a song on The Fellowship) at age 19 in 2001, alongside a degree in music. 

"I realized everyone thought their religion was right, and by virtue of that none of them can be right in the complete sense," he said. "There are more Buddhists than there are Jews than there are Christians. It was a bolt of this whole thing seeming totally absurd to me."

Joseph described the painful period from his early 20s into his 30s as a dismantling of everything he once believed. While not quite nihilistic enough to descend into a self-destructive bender, his anger turned to recklessness as he started drinking for the first time. "When you have a crutch that you haven't thought about for a long time, it's really unnerving to question it," he said. "I felt hopeless and lost."

During his studies at the U of T, Joseph met many of the longtime musical collaborators who have contributed to each of his solo albums. The Fellowship includes an increased focus on electric guitars played by Thom Gill and Bahamas' Christine Bougie, textural percussion by Bernice's Phil Melanson, trumpet by Nicole Rampersaud, bass by Bram Gielen, and co-production by Kieran Adams. Together and apart, these hyper-talented players can be credited with creating the sound of many of Toronto's most acclaimed releases of the past two decades.

However, during his post-secondary years, Joseph's existential crisis deepened to include the decision that he no longer wanted to play jazz. "All of these things that I hadn't questioned for a long time all started failing at once," he said. "For the first time I had to engage with the things I actually liked and wanted for myself." He could have turned his back on this world of music permanently if it wasn't for a chance recording session with Destroyer in 2011. 

At that point in my life I was so down on the saxophone," he said. "I didn't see its worth and just assumed everyone thought it was a cornball instrument.- Joseph Shabason

The saxophonist first met Dan Bejar while performing as a member of André Ethier's band, which was supporting Destroyer on an East Coast tour in 2008. When Joseph's wife moved to Vancouver for her master's degree, he contacted Bejar to ask if he wanted to jam. The singer politely declined, but asked Joseph if he could bring his horn to JCDC Studios, where they were completing Destroyer's album Kaputt. After only three hours, Shabason laid down the lush sax parts that would change his career path forever.

"At that point in my life I was so down on the saxophone," he said. "I didn't see its worth and just assumed everyone thought it was a cornball instrument." Thankfully, Bejar's vision for a backdrop of soft-rock and smooth jazz to accompany his lovelorn poetry resonated with enough listeners to become a widespread musical trend. Suddenly, saxophones could be heard everywhere from Colin Stetson's circular breathing to Carly Rae Jepsen's '80s-influenced pop. 

"It was crazy to me how much people loved the sax and were ready to hear it again in a more overt role in indie-rock," said Joseph. "I hadn't felt that way in close to 10 years, after spending all this time learning something that I thought nobody wanted to hear. [Kaputt] helped me realize it was OK to like it, and didn't have to feel embarrassed about playing a sax solo."

Working on The Fellowship has also provided Joseph with an opportunity to discuss the experience of studying Bawa's teachings with his parents, who have realized how they forced their own values on their children. "We chose this path and thought we became better people as a result," said Stan. "Our kids, on the other hand, thought of it as a black-and-white belief system that was imposed on them. They rebelled, much like we did with our parents." 

I'd like to teach my kids the lessons of loving your neighbour and doing unto others as you do yourself without divine judgment attached.​​​​​​- Joseph Shabason

As Joseph has become a father himself in recent years, he has also softened on his feelings toward faith. His children are still too young for conceptual conversations, but he plans to pass along the morality tales and communal traditions that have shaped him into the man he is today. 

"A lot of anger I have about the crappy parts of religion is that you're making decisions based on fear from the get-go," he says. "Everything you're taught comes from a fear of not getting into heaven. I'd like to teach my kids the lessons of loving your neighbour and doing unto others as you do yourself without divine judgment attached."