Remembering Syria: Mark Gergis Of Sublime Frequencies Interviewed

Mark Gergis introduced Omar Souleyman to the West and has released an entrancing double CD of his own recordings for humanitarian charities in Syria. He tells John Doran about the importance of looking beyond the news bulletins when it comes to the Middle East

Portrait by Alan Bishop

A US campaign of missile attacks on Syria, which in all certainty would have killed a unforgivably large number of civilians, was averted at the eleventh hour recently. This isn’t leftist hyperbole; it is a statistical certainty based on all the evidence available. But although (a no doubt relieved) President Obama has been given the space to back down in the unlikely form of Russian diplomatic intervention, this probably only amounts to breathing space for a country which is already violently disrupted by civil war. The Russian-overseen program of chemical weapon decommissioning may well be in place, but given that the country’s 1,000 tons of chemical ordnance is distributed between 50 different cities and towns and needs to be dealt with before the deadline of Summer 2014, trouble remains intransigently on the horizon.

Whatever nearly came to pass and whatever may still come to pass, there’s something that should be acknowledged, however: the vast majority of people in America, Russia, France, the UK and other Western countries politically involved in the Middle East, will generally accept the things done in their name because of misconceptions about countries such as Syria and the people who live there. The views of the majority in these countries are often moulded by the Orientalism of the news media (including some liberal/ left leaning sources of journalism). This is not even particularly surprising. Places like Syria and Iraq are not exactly common holiday destinations for those who don’t have family living there. Where else would information on these territories come from? Should we really be surprised, when the only time most people think of the inhabitants of Damascus, it will be after watching news reports discussing ethnic conflict, civil war, potential “breeding grounds” for terrorism, chemical attacks, internal repression and human rights abuses? Because in previous times of relative peace, we heard little or nothing about these countries.

For these reasons, it should be said that the compilation of field recordings, interviews, music and snippets of radio shows called I Remember Syria put together by the artist, musician and anthologist Mark Gergis is a very important social document. The tapestry of street sounds, speech and music builds up a sonic picture of a country that is all but ignored outside of (often) misleading news bulletins. While the odd snippet of dabke and Syrian folk music on the compilation are as “alien” and as “other” as any omnivorous Western music fan could wish for, everything else simply serves to do what news reports never do: to humanize and give rich character to everyday Syrian folk. As wild and weird as some of these amazing recordings are, when you are listening to children singing in the street, or the sound of construction sites, knackered car horns bibbing in traffic jams, the lascivious jokes of a gay man, the friendly political banter of a shop keeper, the slightly naff muzak from a radio advert, you know you are listening to people who are, in their essence, like you. (Not all of the lengthy double album fits neatly into these categories. The last track for example, ‘The Norias Of Hama (Blood Irrigation On The Orontes)’ is a recording of a giant, aqueduct supplying waterwheel. There is no western equivalent to this piece of six century old engineering and it sounds more like a bootleg of a SunnO))) gig than the field recording of some riverside machinery but the point stands generally.)

I should admit, at this point, I have a romantic and perhaps far-fetched belief that if people genuinely love pop music and pop culture from foreign countries then they will be much less willing to tolerate those countries being bombed in their name. (I’m sorry if anyone finds this idea to be patronising or stating the bleeding obvious but it is a belief that I hold sincerely and passionately at least.) And this comes with an extra admission: I don’t think it’s the job of the news media to persuade people to love Syrian pop music.

Gergis, who is part of the Sublime Frequencies team and the man responsible for introducing Omar Souleyman, the dabke singer, to the West, made the series of recordings while on two trips to Syria in 1997/8 and 2000. They were initially released on double CD a decade ago but have recently been reissued as a digital download with all profits going to Syrian humanitarian charity.

This album and a compilation (Dabke: Sounds Of The Syrian Houran, released on his own Sham Palace label) have been key records for The Quietus in 2013, so we caught up with him recently for an illuminating email conversation about music and culture in Syria, Iraq and the west.

(You can buy I Remember Syria from Boomkat here and it is a fabulous album.)

Read full review of I Remember Syria – Mark Gergis on ©

Normally I would take you through stages in an interview to form a rough narrative for the sake of the reader but I’m really keen that people should buy I Remember Syria and listen to it while they’re reading this feature… Can you outline briefly what I Remember Syria is? (We’ll come back to this in detail later.)

Mark Gergis: I Remember Syria is a full-length audio document consisting of field recordings, interviews, radio recordings and music snippets assembled from material recorded during my first two visits to Syria in 1997/98 and 2000. It was released as a double-CD on the Sublime Frequencies label in 2004, and reissued this year (2013) as a special digital issue in light of the Syrian disaster, as a charity release, with all proceeds going to Syrian charities.

Where can people get it from and where does the money go?

MG: The digital release is available through iTunes, Boomkat and other familiar dispensaries. Money has been going to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but as the situation in Syria deteriorates and organizations there have a harder time functioning on the ground,

I am continuously monitoring charities to ensure that the money gets to the best place.

Can you tell me about your background. Where were you born geographically but can you also tell me about your racial, social and cultural background as well?

MG: I was born in California, USA to an Iraqi immigrant father from Baghdad, and a Californian-American mother. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. The rest of my Iraqi family ended up immigrating to Detroit, Michigan, where we’d spend time throughout my youth.

What music did you like when you were young? Were you part of a local scene or anything like that?

MG: As a kid, I was exposed to a lot of Iraqi and Arabic music at weddings and functions. 1970/80s Americana shaped the other half of my youth. As a teenager getting into subculture and post punk music in the mid-1980s, Arabic and other international music weren’t things I was interested in. I had my cultural renaissance – like any kid should – at 14 or 15, fuelled by curiosity, good music, good books, good drugs and a growing understanding and anger related to domestic and global politics (then under the Reagan/Bush regime). I started writing and making films and music at that time. The mid-late 1980s were peppered with teenage film and music follies made with local pals in the suburbs. I moved to Oakland in 1991, and soon co-founded a few music and performance groups that played and recorded a lot in the then-vibrant San Francisco/Oakland “interesting music scene”. I started my solo project – Porest in 1993, the same year my group Mono Pause (later known as Neung Phak) began. Those projects still breathe today.

How did you get into collecting international music? What were the gateway artists into this world? Where did you look for music and did you have any purpose in mind other than just enjoyment when you started collecting records?

MG: Around the early 1990s, I began to feel so bored and disappointed with the state of western music, even that which was supposed to be progressive – that I began turning to other sounds. Since I lived in California – a state with a large and diverse immigrant population, I just opened my ears up to what was going on around me. I remember a stage in the early 90s where I began listening in to Mexican AM radio, and recording it – particularly the very fast banda music. I even tried incorporating some of it into my own home-recorded music at the time – learning some of the bass lines and melodies and writing lyrics to it in English, just for fun. In that sense, the discoveries began at home.

It was the first Gulf War (the US and allied forces war against Iraq back in 1990) that really began to politicize me and force me to realize what sort of country I was living in, and also how it was to be of Iraqi or Arabic heritage in the United States – which was pretty shit in suburban America, unless you were an assimilated proto-American. I began going back to Arabic music with fresh ears. Most of my Iraqi family were living in Detroit, Michigan – and I’d often visit the many Iraqi music shops there, looking for good sounds. I took a lot of road trips across the United States in my early-twenties, and took special interest in discovering which immigrant communities had settled where, and what music they were making.

In Oakland, I started buying cassette tapes at local markets and grocery stores (Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese, Arabic, etc). There’s a rich South East Asian population there – and even the Asian branch of the Oakland library was a valuable resource for music at that time. Americans are generally quite insular, and often willfully ignorant about the world around them. I was probably no exception, really. At that time, I started feeling the need to get out of the armchair and begin traveling, in order to learn more about everything – including the music I was hearing, and the people that made it, and the places it came from.

You’re an artist, a DJ, a film maker and work for a record label – among other things – can you tell me about the chronology of how all of these musical interests developed?

MG: Full-immersion in music came first. I spent all of my 20s listening, watching and developing music and audio experiments. Film too. It’s also when I started playing live and recording more seriously – anything from insane performance and music groups, to languid instrumental improv offshoots, or novel compositions and shows made with my brother. There were so many projects – even a fake Christian band. In the late-90s, I began to release more CDs and records with these groups. My Porest project started taking precedence as well, and I was always recording in my home studio.

It was around this time that I began traveling as well. My first trip in 1997 was 6 months long, staying for long periods of time in the Middle East and Germany. Concurrently, I was beginning to compile prototypes of what would later become Sublime Frequencies releases – mainly with the Syrian, Cambodian, Iraqi and Thai music I was collecting and researching.

Sublime Frequencies began in late 2003 (10 years ago as I write this). It all took off pretty quickly, and we were issuing quite a lot of music and traveling whenever we could – shooting film footage, researching, meeting artists and musicians, getting CDs into production, and eventually bringing acts like Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh to stages in the west. In 2011, I started my own label – Sham Palace, which I operate today alongside my work with Sublime Frequencies. DJing started after Sublime Frequencies had been going for a while. Coming from more of a musical and performance background, somehow I never take the DJ title seriously, but once I get on stage and am able to loudly enjoy a lot of this music and share it live, I can really get into it.

Can you explain for those who don’t know, a little bit about Sublime Frequencies, the background of the guys who run it and how you became involved with that label?

MG: Sublime Frequencies is run by Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet. Alan Bishop and I met in 2002 after one of my music groups (Neung Phak) performed in Seattle with Alvarius B – Alan’s solo project. I had been a Sun City Girls fan for years, and it was a pleasure discussing politics and world travel together, as well as common interests in Southeast Asian and Arabic/Middle Eastern music. I had also met Hisham a few years previous through mutual friends when we both lived in the Bay Area.

I’ve been a frequent collaborator since the inception of the Sublime Frequencies label, as has Robert Millis and a few others. Before the label was created, we would get together and spend hours sharing music, film footage and ideas with each other from our respective travels. The fact that all of us were musicians meant we were naturally keeping our ears open to the sounds we encountered while traveling.

A lot of the music we collected on out trips was contemporary “hybrid folk-pop” from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Very incredible sounds! The same question kept coming up during our listening and viewing sessions – "Why hasn’t this music been made available to people here before?" (Here being the music-listening western world). So one initial goal of the project was to issue music that was criminally ignored by established institutions and record labels alike at the time.

Sublime Frequencies was formed as a way to try and get this music out there and share what we were learning and hearing with a listening audience that might also be interested. You could say that the label was also a direct response to what “world music” had become – and aimed to combat the negative stigma – and ultimately terrible sounds and presentation – that so much international music had developed by the 1980s and 1990s. Even today, many presenters of international music in the West show a proclivity toward taming sounds in the studio – over-producing the music – cleaning it up – tempering and softening it for Western audiences. It is a form of aural globalization – very appropriate for an increasingly sterilized world.

How did you first come across the music of Omar Souleyman and what attracted you to it?

MG: Planning my first trip to Syria, one of the big questions was whether I’d be able to find forms of Arabic dabke and folkloric music that defied the few sterile versions available in the western world. I’d grown up hearing live ensembles at Iraqi family weddings in the US, and was disappointed that all of the recorded forms of Iraqi and Arabic contemporary music were aurally vaccinated, polished, and aesthetically unappealing to me. I was sure there had to be something more genuine out there. These were pre-YouTube days, so research meant something entirely different than it does today. On the night of my arrival in Damascus in 1997, I was already swimming in music. At that time, cassette-stalls lined the streets in every Syrian city. They’d be blaring their wares at maximum volume – competing with each other, sometimes even playing the same song as the cart next door – but louder. It was beautifully disorienting. I started spending time with these vendors and asking questions. I bought as much as I could, taking tapes back to my hotel for a listen, then going back to the vendors with more inquiries. Omar Souleyman was one of many artists I found that first week. Only a few years into his singing career at that point, he’d just had his first regional “hit” with his song ‘Jani’ – a Kurdish/Arabic melding of a traditional melody. The man who first put Omar in business was Zuhir Maksi, a producer and engineer in Ras Al Ain, who ran a music label featuring local singers. Zuhir had done well recording, promoting and distributing Omar throughout Syria on the dabke circuit. Many labourers in Damascus come from the Jazeera region, and they were the primary market for this sort of dabke there, where I found it.

How did you become involved in releasing his music in the West?

MG: I‘ve worked with Sublime Frequencies since its inception in 2003. In 2006, I proposed that I try locating Omar in Syria to discuss releasing a collection of music I’d compiled from his tapes. I didn’t actually meet Omar until that year – about 9 years after I began collecting his music. Over the years, it was just something I’d listen to privately. I was visiting Syria whenever possible throughout the 2000s, and dabke tapes were a good way to keep me satiated between visits. I’d crank Omar cassettes at top volume in my car while driving the roads of paranoid post 9/11 America, and as the US was beginning their campaign to destroy Iraq. When I’d play the tapes for people in the beginning, it would get mixed reactions. More astute listeners took my word for it and heard it as a lively, local variation on Arabic dabke. Other reactions varied from, “Wow – amazing alien exotic psychedelia” to “Why is this so angry?” or even, “Is this anti-semitic?” Others saw it as a cheap and novel synthetic nuisance. I was a bit concerned about how it would do, and I wanted it to do well. Just before Highway To Hassake was released, I put together a promo video on YouTube for one of my favorite tracks, ‘Leh Jani’ – comprised of footage I’d shot of Omar and his group in Syria, and edited with footage pulled from Syrian-issue VCDs. I felt that a western audience should have the context for Omar and where he’s from. In the end, the clip was instrumental in generating the first wave of initial interest. Personally, I doubt Souleyman would have had the same reception in the west, had we chosen to release his music in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Maybe the world wasn’t ready yet.

How difficult was it getting Omar over to play gigs in the West?

MG: It took some significant work getting the Omar group prepared for their first western tour in 2009. I was on the ground in Damascus helping prepare visas, etc – but in a way, that was the easy part. I based in Ras Al Ain for a while and spent a lot of time building the setlists and curating the feel of the shows with Omar, Rizan and Zuhir Maksi. They are musicians for hire in Syria, and basically play what their employers want to hear, so they asked what I wanted for their western performances. I wanted them to be themselves – with the same power that I knew from their cassette repertoire, and assured them they needn’t ham it up for the west. I was aware that their technology and musical preferences had changed considerably over the previous years, and their preconceptions about what the west wanted to hear were interesting. They had a group of confidants around them at all times – whispering in their ears, telling them (and me) what the west wants to hear; Clean music… Euro-dance techno music… Maybe some western songs… certainly not what they would normally play in Syria. Someone even suggested I get them to play music from the film, Titanic!

When we started rehearsing and building the first set list, I based it on songs I knew and loved from their recorded history. When I explained that the audience in the west were enjoying tracks like ‘Leh Jani’, ‘Jani’ and the rest, they were surprised, as they hadn’t played this material in years. In the end, an incredible set was built, featuring old and new songs. During Syrian weddings, each song is usually played for 30 minutes or more, so we timed out the material – truncating it considerably, and also sequenced the setlists carefully in order to create a dynamic flow. In Syria, the wedding party dances all night to the songs, and there is no start and stop. No one applauds – It’s just non-stop music. When Rizan asked which keyboard he should bring with him, I requested the one he’d created the earlier songs with. This was also hilarious to him, because he had graduated to newer technology. In the end, we had the original as well as his newer keyboard on stage.

It must have been interesting for you to see how Western audiences and Omar Souleyman interacted. I was at the Boston Manor/Dome gig with Group Doueh and he looked slightly stunned at all the attention in the UK but by the time he was playing Field Day he was in his element leading a Dabke rave in in a park in East London.

MG: The first responses to Omar in the west were unprecedented, and surprising for everyone involved. People were blown away. All of these first shows of 2009 were captured on video, and even in this footage, it’s evident that a phenomenon was developing almost overnight. The first show at The Dome in London had people talking for a long time – mainly about how crazy it was to see people from numerous scenes losing their shit together in one place, united by a Syrian man with an image so demonized by western media for years – khaffya, sunglasses and a jalaba.

Omar and his group (which featured the incredible Ali Shaker on electric saz, Zuhir Maksi as an MC and acting poet, and Rizan Sa’id on synths) were clearly startled by the response, but they played it off well. It was a bizarre confluence of circumstances, I think. The timing was right, and audiences were ready for the sort of power the early live Omar shows delivered. It all snowballed quite quickly. Omar unwittingly became the first-ever Syrian singer to “break” on the scale he did. And for the first time, it wasn’t the result of flash producers trying to add global beats and fusion into the equation. This was the real deal from rural Hassake, Syria – and it had a power of its own that didn’t need any of that.

Have you heard Wenu Wenu, his new Four Tet produced album?

MG: I have heard Omar’s new record, and it’s not so compelling to me. Though some of the performances are decent, it’s missing a lot of the urgency and edge, in my opinion. I found this

to be true of many of Omar’s previous studio recordings in Syria as well. He’s made dozens of studio albums back home, and in my opinion, with a few exceptions, he is best outside of the studio. It boils down to aesthetics and the choices made by the producer or management in the end. I haven’t managed or produced Omar and his group since 2011, and I’m not a spokesperson for his new direction. I will say though, that at the end of 2010, during the same time we were producing the Bjork EP, I produced a full-length Omar Souleyman Group album – recorded at the legendary ADA studio in Istanbul with Randall Dunn. It’s an exciting sounding record that everyone had a great time making, but the project was shelved for various reasons.

Portrait by Dave Franklin

Can you tell me about your trips to Syria. What equipment you used to make the recordings, what your aims were, how you found people to talk to etc?

MG: I first decided to travel to Syria in 1997 – out of curiosity, and because I felt like it was the last sovereign Arab state with integrity left in the Levantine Middle East that hadn’t bowed to the US and Israel or been destroyed by those countries. I couldn’t really travel to Iraq at the time, which I wanted to do, but I felt Syria would be a similar experience and I was interested in seeing the country, meeting the people, hearing the music, and learning more about it. I brought my shortwave radio and a cassette recorder and recorded the sounds and interviews that would later become I Remember Syria. That album was actually the result of my first and second trips to Syria in ‘97/98 and 2000.

Syria has always fallen under the category of rogue/ pariah/ terrorist state, etc in the west. Upon my return to the States, I was convinced I should begin sharing the sounds of Syria in hopes of defying this reputation. While the general western public had been exposed to anti-Syrian rhetoric for decades, it seemed to know nothing of the vibrant culture or history, and nothing about its extant culture or people. When the US began ramping up its rhetoric against Iraq in 2003, I was angered, and sensed Syria might be next. This pushed me to assemble I Remember Syria with greater urgency. I like to say that it was an audio love letter to the Syria I grew to know. Being the cheap date that I am, I didn’t use fancy equipment – just cassette and minidisc recorders and a variety of small microphones, including binaural mics.

More than anything else, these albums help challenge popular misconceptions of people from MENA countries don’t they?

MG: That was the original aim, and we can hope so. The realist’s version may reveal some cracks in the clay, however. Once something is commodified, you see how easily manipulated and cheapened it can become. In the bigger picture, the hope is that it helps when people start appreciating something from a country like Syria. Perhaps they’d never considered the country before. For instance, maybe Omar helped put Syria on the map for some music fans, but there’s no controlling how people take away the music and how it may help challenge popular misconceptions. That’s up to the individual. The political landscape regarding MENA countries is so distorted and confounding – particularly since 2011. I’ve seen some people try and parade Omar as the voice of the “Syrian revolution”. On another hand, some people just want a party –and if there’s a token Arab mascot moving around on stage, all the better for a freaky night out. So the intent may be different than the end result, but again, it’s up to the end user how they process it. I do my job (with fingers crossed), and they do theirs.

Before I went to Egypt recently I had a few people – who would otherwise be quite intelligent – saying the craziest things to me about the stuff I would see which was so far off the mark it was unbelievable. Do you find that people’s perceptions of what it’s like in Syria are misguided? To what extent is the European and American press (including the mainstream liberal/left media) complicit in misleading people?

MG: Yes, I know this phenomenon too well. And coming from the US, I imagine the misconceptions and ignorance are similar, or even greater than in the UK and Europe. People at home were always telling me I was going to die if I went to Syria, how dangerous it was there, etc. These weren’t experts on Syria or the Middle East, just concerned people that unwittingly got their news and opinions from professional liars.

Growing up half-Iraqi in the US helped show me from a very young age, just how misguided people were regarding the region and its people. I would say that the ignorance actually increased after the dawn of CNN and Reagan. Almost everything people have generally thought about Syria is wrong. Syria, as I knew it up until 2010, was one of the most civilized and dignified places I’d ever been. Despite what one thought of the government, or what internal problems the country had, there was no arguing that it was a safe, functional and gentle place – and a secular country where many ethnicities and religions lived together. I often spoke to western travelers who’d made their way to Syria overland while traveling between the more common destinations of Egypt and Turkey. Most of them were stunned after experiencing Syrian culture with their own eyes, as opposed to what their governments and western media portrayed it as.

For the past two years, the focus for the west has been to finally eradicate and control the Syrian “pariah state” they’ve had their sights on for decades. From my point of view, what has occurred in Syria has basically been a grand infiltration operation – a set up – directed and financed by western countries, Israel and certain Gulf states. This plan is all about reshaping and neutralizing the Arab world to fit a globalist model that will serve those financing it – all at the expense of the Syrian people. This is how the west now performs ‘regime change’ – the act of undermining and reshaping a sovereign country from the outside. It’s based on a similar model to covert operations America employed repeatedly in Southeast Asia and South America between the 1960s and 1980s. It’s difficult to watch as sovereign countries are being consumed with impunity while neo-liberals everywhere cheer it on, and praise what they believe to be a grassroots people’s revolution. Many liberals and progressives have been surprisingly silenced over the past several years. Somewhere along the road, the broad concept of democracy seems to have been completely redefined and co-opted. For me, democracy itself has become a mantra worth questioning, when you see who its biggest proponents are, and what their agendas are.

What were the most surprising and moving and scary experiences you had recording the material for I Remember Syria?

MG: Actually, There weren’t many scary experiences, as Syria wasn’t really a scary place. A lot of the album captures my own real-time discoveries in the country, as I spoke with people and interviewed them. During the period the album was recorded, there wasn’t much tourism in Syria – particularly not American tourists. There was a greater level of paranoia there during the late-1990s, and understandably so, as there were serious threats and coup attempts abounding. The secret police apparatus was firmly intact, and I was approached a number of times over the years, mostly through obvious means involving friendly but persistent questioning. Obviously, I had only nice things to say, and didn’t flaunt my microphone when having talks with these folks.

Once while in the eastern city of Deir Uz Zur (very sadly, now a city lying in ruins), I had a wiring problem with my binaural mics (the type meant to look like headphones, and go in your ears). After searching town for a repair shop, I found one, run by a friendly, bearded man. I explained to him that these weren’t headphones, but actually microphones. He seemed quite surprised as he looked them over, but said he could fix them. I picked them up a few hours later, and as the man handed them to me, I saw a pistol hanging out of his belt. He saw that I saw. I asked him if he was secret police, and he affirmed with a smile. No problem. “Welcome to Syria”, he said.

The track ‘Kazib City’ is one of my favorites. It’s an edited version of an hour-long play conceived and recorded in the hotel I was staying in by a Sudanese man that worked the front desk, and some of his Syrian colleagues. It was based on conversations we’d had the night before where we’d invented a mythical city called KAZIB (meaning ‘lie’ in Arabic). We all started telling unwitting hotel patrons about this amazing city, and how they should visit if they met the requirements (which was impossible to do). The whole charade was metaphorical, and as a result, a great vehicle for open political discourse and satire, at a time where discussion of politics there was more of a muted affair.

The segments I recorded from Syrian radio were also surprising to me – and an amazing way to discover the sounds and opinions in the country at the time.

Can you tell me more about the Dabke compilation, where you sourced the material from and how it differs from what we may have heard from Omar Souleyman?

MG: In 2012, I released Dabke – Sounds of the Syrian Houran on my Sham Palace label. I’ve been an avid collector of Syrian music, amassing large amounts of cassettes and digital media over the years. Looking back from 2013, I realize now more than ever that these archives are national treasures. They already were, in the sense that in Syria, as in much of the world, an album that is three or four years old, particularly one that was a cassette-only issue, and recorded at a wedding party is seldom cherished as a keepsake. It’s an ephemeral industry, and the tapes vanish after a short period of time. There are very different ideas that are exclusive to the west regarding collecting, hoarding, archiving, documenting, etc – all of which may seem frivolous and indicative of a mental illness if described to someone elsewhere. As a result, music gets lost and forgotten. This was the case before the 2011 crisis in Syria. Post-crisis, it’s hard to imagine anyone having the time or interest to do any sort of musical archaeology.

The dabke sound varies throughout the country with regional nuances – some subtle, and some more pronounced. While Omar’s sound is known for its coarse urgency and rawness, the Hourani dabke feels amped up by a few more notches. There’s a strikingly more tribal feel (and I mean tribal in the most literal sense). Even though it may use the same technology, it doesn’t contain the Kurdish or Assyrian influences that dabke made in the Jazeera region does. Instead, Hourani dabke is more rooted in Bedouin Arabic melodies and rhythms, and is very close to the kinds of dabke you can hear in Jordan and Palestine. The collection represents some of the most outstanding moments from my Hourani cassette-tape archives.

You’ve got a second Choubi Choubi compilation coming out in November. Can you tell me about this series of releases?

MG: Choubi Choubi volume one was released in 2005, and features Iraqi folk-pop recordings from the 1970s – 1990s. Choubi is one of the main focuses in the collection, but other Iraqi styles are featured as well. Choubi music is a style I’d always wanted to hear more of, after growing up with it at Iraqi weddings in my youth. Despite never having been to Iraq, I began to collect Iraqi music inside immigrant communities in the States, and later, during my Syrian travels, particularly in towns near the Iraqi border. It’s some of my favorite music in the world. Choubi is Iraq’s dabke music, essentially. Often, it’s a style performed in Baghdad nightclubs and at parties by Iraq’s gypsy community. Volume one was a favorite of mine on Sublime Frequencies. Of course, I never did stop collecting Iraqi music, and I knew someday I’d find a way to assemble a second edition.

Dabke: Sound Of The Syrian Houran is available here

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