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Three Songs No Flash

At London's Scala, We Witness The Continuing Rise Of Omar Souleyman
Luke Turner , May 19th, 2010 12:37

Put on your kaffiyeh, get down and praise the lord! Luke Turner is set in motion by Omar Souleyman's funk motor. Live ATP pictures by Andy Ennis for

If you'd asked me two years ago whether I'd be spending a Monday night watching a man who in robe, kaffiyeh, dark glasses and tightly clipped moustache send the Scala beserk with music that sounds like being simultaneously crushed with a piledriver and attached by swarms of killer bees, I wouldn't have believed you. Yet Omar Souleyman's frantic combination of hyperspeed electric oud, overdriven keyboard and intimidating yet deadpan stage presence has clearly struck a chord.

Tonight's Scala gig tops even last year's show at the Tufnel Park Dome, which in itself was one 2009's musical highlights. In part, it's because the sound is so crystal clear, so heavy, as the best pop production should be. A friend of the Quietus remarks that the Scala PA hasn't sounded this banging since he saw Leftfield here. Curiously, this time around there's no poet whispering words into Souleyman's ear for him to sing – one cynic remarks that perhaps that was all a scam in the first place. Whatever the reason, it certainly puts even more focus onto Souleyman and, interestingly, he seems to be relishing the attention. He stalks the lip of the stage, flicking his palm as he beckons -successfully - for more movement from this young crowd. He's a striking presence – the sight of Souleyman prowling the chalets of Butlins at this past weekend's ATP would have been something to behold. One wonders what discourse he and Mark E Smith might have had over a chalet kettle brew were it not for the language barrier... Because – and this has been mentioned before - there's certainly an curious affinity between Souleyman and Mark E Smith's group - the revolving musicians, the plethora of releases, the relentless drive of the music, the approach to the audience that, behind the superficial antagonism, reveals an artist who revels in this attention.

Yet as is the case with Smith, Souleyman should not be treated as an eccentric, or a curio. It might be possible to be suspicious of the appreciation tonight – you have to hope this isn't some hipster irony that's getting a very Dalston-looking crowd so excited on a school night. But there's no denying the joy on these faces. Perhaps the abandon and deranged dancing that appears at gigs by artists such as Souleyman (and, indeed, other artists from across the world, see also Konono No 1, Toumani Diabate) - is because we're suddenly faced with a music that has no context, isn't part of a tedious canon, entirely refuses to allow you to wonder whether you're 'allowed' to like it or not. Even in these less tribal times, our ears are forced to take on baggage which weighs down both our feet and our souls – Souleyman and his ilk render this irrelevant. Credit is due to the likes of Sublime Frequencies, Qu Junktions, Soundway, Analogue Africa and Upset The Rhythm for bringing these artists from outside the stuffy concert hall and demolishing the walls to what was the world music ghetto. Yet it's to be hoped that concerts like tonight can reach wider audiences – where are London's Syrians? is a pertinent question tonight. And Omar Souleyman has, to these ears, a broad appeal - there's certainly some sonic similarity in this relentlessly upbeat, hard bass, gurgling treble music that would find receptive ears in fans of Hadouken or happy hardcore.

And perhaps Omar Souleyman's appeal is potentially even wider? Like any good pop star, he saves the hit for the encore. 'Leh Jani' is introduced with his "hup hup hup" and fairground operator "wwuuuuuuhaaay", as those keyboard demons have a last flutter around the Scala. Then there's a final track of rear-axle bouncing sub bass before Souleyman stands, microphobe held in outstretched hand until someone comes onstage to take it off him. He then exits, through a different door to his musicians. This man in grey robes, moustache, kaffiyeh, moustache and unflappable stage presence, might just be the coolest fucking pop star on the planet right now.