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Music at the Merch – Interview with Omar Shabbar

Music at the Merch has been a staple of the fest ever since there was a fest – and before that too. Suitcase in Point performed their very first cabaret show there 15 years ago, and now the team at The Merchant Ale House have come on board yet again as a 15th Season Sponsor and festival partner.

For those few not in the know, The Merchant Ale House is a local, independent microbrewery in St. Catharines, and one of In the Soil’s main venues. Start at 6pm on Friday, there will be music acts – both local and touring – playing their intimate stage until well into the night. If you’re more of a day concert person, you can head over Saturday at 12pm to catch the first set, and hang around until 2am, when things start to wind down. It’s the place to go for music at the fest – once you’ve checked out the main Festival Hub stage – and to get a pint of local brew.

Omar Shabbar has been involved with the fest as both a musician and volunteer for 6 years – last year he was the venue manager at the Merch and this year his band Century Thief will be there ripping it up on Friday night. He also grew up local and is the brother of the fest’s fabulous Volunteer Coordinator, Anah Shabbar. Keep on reading for an interview with Omar, where he shares some insights on his time as a volunteer and performer, growing up in the Niagara music scene, and what he’s looking forward to this year!

 

Can you tell me a bit about your work as a musician? 

I’ve been playing music with different acts for about 15 years – playing guitar, bass, banjo, and singing. My main act right now is my band – we’re called Century Thief. We’ve been together for around 7 years and we’ve toured out east and throughout Ontario. We’re about to come out with our second album and that’s what we’ll be playing at In the Soil this year. I also got the SWC music award when I graduated (:

How did you get involved with volunteering at the festival?

I’ve been volunteering or performing at In the Soil for around 6 years now. Last year, my band Century Thief was focusing on recording our second album, so we weren’t able to play. Of course, I wanted to still be involved in the festival some how so I asked to be a venue manager. It also helps that my sister is the volunteer co-ordinator.

How do you find working both as a musician and in more producer/manager roles? Do these intersect or conflict with each other?

Well I don’t manage/produce often so I’ve never really had any problems with conflicts. I do put on shows sometimes with my sister under our arts collective Greenbelt Arts, which we co-founded. A lot of those shows I’d book and play and do sound at and, while it’s a lot to do at once, it’s always fun.

What is a typical day or night working as venue manager at the Merch like? What’s the best thing about it? What’s the hardest thing about it?

I should start by saying Merch is my favourite bar in the city (as per most people in St. Catharines) so working there is easy and fun. Adding live music to the equation is bound to be good. Last year I was able to meet a lot of great musicians and make new and meaningful connections. The best thing is a tie between the beer and the music. The hardest thing about it is people who don’t understand the value of paying cover – the money goes to the musicians and it’s so so so important to support local musicians.

What are you looking forward to as a performing this In the Soil? 

Merch. Friends. Family. Home. I live in Toronto but I’m from St. Catharines so playing in St. Catharines has always been important to me. I know it’ll be a great night.

Can you tell me a bit about growing up in the Niagara music scene? What’s it like coming back?

Yeah, I mean the festival is really unique. I think everyone’s attitude is what makes it so special. It’s as if you’re buddies with everyone, even if you don’t know anyone. There’s no salty, “high horse” attitudes that you find in too many festivals and shows.

Growing up in St. Catharines, the music scene was pretty bleak. With the venues, promoters and everyone (myself included) trying to rip off alexisonfire, it was hard to play any meaningful shows. The good part is the people I met and still play with to this day; some of my favourite musicians are from the region. There’s a certain sound they have that – to me – is instantly recognizable as Niagara. This obviously could be different for other people growing up but that was at least my experience. Since then, it’s basically been a 180. There are really unique venues and people come out to shows because they’re genuinely interested in hearing new music, not just interested in draws, money, or abiding to a certain sound. I’ve played in a fare share of cities in Ontario and out east to know this kind of welcoming atmosphere mixed with the amount of amazing musicians is hard to come by. In the Soil is the epitome of this.

Make sure to check out Century Thief Friday night at 9pm, and stick around to catch more of over 20 acts playing The Merchant Ale House stage this weekend. Check out the festival schedule for more!