Introducing: Joseph Shabason’s “Escape From North York”

A track premiere, plus an essay about its inspiration by the artist himself.

This album is built around the themes of certainty and turmoil: The certainty that comes when you give your life over to religion, and the turmoil that builds when you start to see cracks in that belief system. The song “Escape From North York” falls into the turmoil side of the record. 

The song follows my parents as young adults when they started to really question the religious system that they had grown up in. Both were raised in Toronto’s North York neighborhood in traditional Jewish families that were more focused on the rituals of religion than any deeper spirituality. They both chose non-traditional career paths — my father was a jazz musician and my mother was a ceramic artist — and as young people in the 1970s, both of them were searching very hard for deeper meaning. 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. In their late 20s, they moved out to a rural area outside Toronto in search of a fresh start. It was there they found the teachings of a Sufi sheik named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who guided his followers — many of whom were non-Muslim converts — in a mystical form of Islam. Bawa’s followers called themselves “The Fellowship.” This song is a musical interpretation of the breaking point that finally drove my parents away from the city they grew up in and towards those teachings. 

The main objective with this record was to try and find a way of conveying autobiography and family history through instrumental music. The exciting part for me was the challenge of telling a multi-generational story without words. Rather than try and convey every aspect of my family’s history in one album, with The Fellowship I decided to focus in on what was by all accounts a pretty atypical religious upbringing. We were the only Jewish family in a rural town of eight thousand people — and a Jewish family who also happened to be Muslims. It was deeply weird experience for sure, but to me that’s not the part of the story that was worth telling. What I wanted to explore more than anything was how jarring and disorienting it is when you lose your faith. It’s a particular kind of anxiety that so many people go through silently because talking about it means that you have to let your religious community know your faith is wavering. The implications are huge. The fear of losing your community and your family weigh on you and so much of the time it stops you from speaking up. With that in mind, the idea of opening up a musical conversation about losing one’s faith felt like it was worth exploring. 

I really started to question my own faith once I started to understand the implications of divine judgement. If my friend’s parents drank alcohol, which Allah forbade, did that mean that they were going to go to hell, even though they were good people? By 13 I had smoked weed and I was terrified about what God was going to do to me. Was I gonna go to hell? Was I going to go to a lesser heaven? Was God upset that I had kissed a girl? I think that these are feelings that all kids who question their faith go through, but the emotional damage that comes with a lapse in faith can have such long lasting effects. I don’t think I will ever fully get over the negative psychological effects of organized religion, but recording The Fellowship has definitely acted as a form of therapy. For the first time, I was able to really explore the feelings that religion brings up in me from a place of curiosity rather than anger.

— Joseph Shabason

The Fellowship is available for pre-order from Western Vinyl now.

Joseph Shabason is a Toronto-based saxophonist. His new record, Welcome To Hell, is out now via Western Vinyl.