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Polaris prize nominee Zaki Ibrahim: ‘That’s the beauty of Canadian music. It’s a mix’

Zaki Ibrahim was born in B.C. and now lives in South Africa where some of her family roots are, but still considers herself part of the Canadian mosaic.

Ask one of the 10 Polaris final-round jurors which of the 10 shortlisted albums for Canada's national music prize is the favourite to take home the prize on Monday, and you might get 10 different answers.

It could be Hamilton's Whitehorse (The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss), Toronto's Metric (Synthetica), Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend), Ottawa's A Tribe Called Red (Nation II Nation), Toronto's Metz (self-titled), Edmonton's Purity Ring (Shrines), Montreal's Colin Stetson (New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light), Vancouver's Tegan and Sara (Heartthrob) and Montreal's Young Galaxy (Ultramarine).

Or it could be Zaki Ibrahim, for her sublime blend of soul, house, hip-hop and world-folk textures. In fact, the view from here is this Nanaimo, B.C.-born South African not only could be but should be the recipient of the $30,000 prize, awarded annually to the album judged to be the finest, with no weight placed on genre or sales.

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Ibrahim's superior Every Opposite record was recorded in London, Johannesburg and in Toronto, where she spoke about latex, a broken synthesizer and the Canadian mosaic.

You've shuttled between South Africa and Canada over the years. How has that affected your music?

I've been travelling since I was a kid. I miss a lot of people, and I romanticize the things that I miss. It leads to writing, and it influences my music and what it sounds like.

Given that this is a Canadian music prize, how Canadian are you and how Canadian is this record?

I'm very Canadian. I'm also very South African. I grew up in Canada, my roots are here, and I'm probably here as much as any touring Canadian musician. It's not like I've jumped ship.

From what I understand, the roots-rock duo Whitehorse, a fellow Polaris nominee, is renting out its house in Hamilton these days. They have no home. They're on the road, and I bet another nominee, Metric, isn't getting a lot of home-cooked meals these days either.

That's the reality for many of us. We're living out of suitcases and hotel rooms. But the Canadian identity is a mosaic. That's the beauty of Canadian music. It's a mix. It's a Canadian smoothie.

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There's a line in your song Draw the Line, which I'm probably taking far out of context, but the line is: "I don't want favours, I don't like government." Did you receive any public money to record the album?

Ah. Well, the actual sense of that song is that revolution inevitably becomes institution, and then things get weird. But, yes, there actually was public funding. The Ontario Arts Council definitely helped fund this album. I guess that line says: "I don't want the OAC." But I'll take it.

One of the moments on the record that intrigued me was the outro to Something in the Water. It's a squawking sound, and it reminds me of some of the avant-garde saxophone of Colin Stetson, another Polaris shortlister. What is it?

It came from a broken Moog, from the seventies. It fell off its stand, and it was out of key. We kept the wonkiness, though. We just went with it, and it ended up being kind of cool.

This album is an independent release, but you had a major label deal at one point, and earned a Juno nomination. Have you had problems in the past, when it comes to the kind of music that was expected of you?

I've always been conscious of it. I know what I'm like in confined situations, when it comes to expression. But I will take criticism, if it helps to move things along. The deal I had in 2008 was with Sony. I was very cautious of not wanting to have a spiked career that landed me on my face. Music is something I want to be doing freely when I'm 80. So, I'd rather choose a path of a slow rise, rather than a marketing machine that's going to put me in latex or any comfortable situations.

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One of the odd things about this album is that it was originally released in South Africa, and it didn't get distribution here until after it was shortlisted for the Polaris. You're now with the Pirates Blend label, which is home to Polaris hopefuls A Tribe Called Red. But the album is being distributed by Sony, right?

Yes, I'm working with a lot of the same team members I originally had with Sony. They're still there. They're rooting for me. They're excited, and I feel they believe in my judgment.

Miley Cyrus is with Sony, through RCA. You mentioned uncomfortable situations. I don't imagine you'll be asked to swing naked from a wrecking ball or anything.

No [laughs]. However, if I do choose to swing naked from a wrecking ball, I will.

The Polaris Gala takes place at Toronto's Carlu, Sept. 23, starting at 7 p.m. ET. It streams live on AUX.TV, and is broadcast on SiriusXM Canada.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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