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Interview: Victor Nesrallah’s diverse musical roots

By Terry Steeves on June 17, 2015

Longtime Ottawa musician Victor Nesrallah has spent his life forging a well-rounded career through his never-ending thirst for knowledge in nearly all aspects of music. He shared with me how his 35-year musical journey has been shaped by learning, experience, and answered calls of opportunity.

“Earlier in the 70’s, I used to back up my brother, Stephan, who was fairly well-known back then. When I started on my own in clubs, I knew in order to make my bread and butter, I’d have to get by with playing some cover tunes. But I used to work in a few of my own here and there.”

The eclectic flavours of his music run the gamut from roots to folk to  jazz to blues, and have taken an exploratory turn into Middle Eastern and Arabic elements.

“I had a fairly eclectic background. I had good ears to be able to really listen to music that I was exposed to at a young age. When you’re listening to jazz growing up, and Arabic music, that pretty much covers the whole spectrum. The cultural stuff is not as apart as everyone thinks it is…there‘s a lot of commonality there.”

His latest album, Collections (2014), offers up selections of his previously recorded work from the past 20 years. It’s a perfect CV showcasing the varied dimensions of his music, including “Blood From The Stone”, whose exotic middle-eastern tone is captured through the use of old world instruments such as the udu and the saz. It also features a new version of “Forgive and Forget” (Based In Blues album – 2004), and a new composition, “The Hills of Liban”, written upon his return from a visit to Lebanon two years ago.

“I went to Lebanon a couple years back with my son, Stephan. I gigged in clubs there and it was phenomenal. The song reflects that whole trip, where I went back to check out the family history. There were a lot of great clubs and musicians I was jamming with who didn’t speak English, but they could sing the blues! It was a real high point for me…you bump into people and realize it’s a small world…”

Nesrallah has been able to balance a family and a career in music through a happy medium of producing his own music and teaching, while keeping his roots firmly planted in Ottawa.

“Just when things were taking off for me back then, suddenly I had a family, and then you have to prioritize. I was able to make a living without travelling too far. I did travel the Maritimes, Montreal, Toronto. But then I thought, where do I want to go with this? I knew in order to get the convention of production under my belt, I’d have to learn how to do that. Then I started producing and recording other people, and in turn, had me focusing on my own material. I’ve been teaching at Glebe Collegiate for 14 years now… audio sound production and I started a guitar course. I teach kids what’s basically been my life…about music, entrepreneurship, and audio sound production.”

Catch Ottawa legend Victor Nesrallah’s 1-hour show at Ottawa’s Jazz Festival, 2:00 pm Sat. Jun. 20 at the Rideau Centre stage. He’ll be playing with a full band of guitar, upright bass, violin, banjo and drums.