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Omar Souleyman
Jazeera Nights Robert Barry , June 9th, 2010 07:58

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A few muttered words in Arabic, shrouded in echo. And then it erupts. A day-glo cloudburst of warpspeed Bontempi rhythms and snaking microtonal melodies. Psychedelic invocation to some lascivious simultaneist idol. Urgent glossolalia of electronic thunder and lightning. Amphetamine-powered merengué of dysmorphic frequencies. Notes from between the notes. Beats like the jerry-rigged machine gun fire of exurban guerrila fighters. Cosmopolitan party music from the end times. The death rattle of globalisation, echoing across the scarred plains of bomb-ravaged dreamscapes.

The style of music is called dabke, a Syrian genre popular at weddings and usually accompanied by a sort of fraternal, arms-around-the-shoulders-knees-in-the-air type line dance, but listening to traditional dabke stars like Nasri Shamseddine or Zaki Nassif and then listening to Omar Souleyman is like switching from Max Bygraves and the New Seekers to Public Enemy and Ruff Sqwad. As the name of his previous collection on Sublime Frequencies, Dabke 2020, suggests, Souleyman's dabke is from (at least) ten years into the future, buzzing through time and boldly heralding the new.

Souleyman was born in the late 60s in the midst of an ill-fated experiment in Syrian radical socialism, shortly before a bloodless coup established the thirty year presidency of Hafez al-Assad (father of current president Bashar al-Assad). Growing up in Tal Tamr, a small rural village in the north-east of Syria close to the borders of Turkey and Iraq, left the young Souleyman exposed to the influence of a wide number of different middle eastern musics throughout his childhood. Living at the interstices of the Arab world, he absorbed a panoply of sounds and styles whilst making time in a series of dead-end jobs. But it was not until the mid-90s that he began performing professionally at weddings and parties, quickly amassing over 500 cassette releases, mostly live recordings, that now dominate every tape stand in Syria.

Onstage, the strutting, gesticulating Souleyman, dressed in trademark shades and keffiyah, is joined by long-term collaborators, Rizan Sa'id and Hassan Hamadi. The latter's role being largely to stand chainsmoking, occasionally whispering poetry into Souleyman's ears to be incorporated into the music, according to the age-old ataba tradition. And what poetry, ranging from the visceral heartbreak of "My liver has rotted from waiting for you" (from the track 'Eih Min Elemkon') to a political broadside such as "The poor live in bitterness and the rich live as they want" ('Kell Il Banat Inkhatban').

Of course, one couldn't really call this latest collection on Sublime Frequencies a "progression" from the two previous, what with all three being compiled ad hoc from tapes going back 15 years, and without any dates attached to any of the tracks or even a basic chronological ordering it's difficult to tell what has changed in Souleyman's music over the years, or to imagine why it might need to. In a recent interview, he claimed that dabke had been increasing in speed by 10 bpm every year, but in order for that to be true there would have to be some tracks here that were 150 bpm faster than some others, which clearly isn't the case. Nonetheless, despite the absence of Souleyman's biggest hit, both at home and (thanks to the magic of YouTube) in the West, ‘Leh Jani’ (which appeared on last year's comp), Jazeera Nights remains as appropriate a place as any to begin immersing oneself in the frenetic, hypercolour world of Omar Souleyman.

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