Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gig: Omar Souleyman

Omar Souleyman

Lee's Palace. Wednesday, July 6, 2011.

Even in the "flat" internet era of culture, it's a weird, random crapshoot when it comes to encountering things from outside our own sphere — and seemingly even more random to consider what catches on. As such, I was a little surprised — but rather pleasantly so — that Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman was making it here for a gig.

I was curious about whom the audience would be for this — the fact that the show was at Lee's hinted that the presumed crowd was more from the "rock" side of things than the "world" side. That would dovetail with the marketing reach of label Sublime Frequencies, who had introduced Souleyman to a Western audiences beyond the diasporic communities. And, indeed, as folks started to trickle in, there were "plenty hipsters," according to my notes. Also: music nerds, crate diggers and folks who like a certain kind of trance-inducing dance music, regardless of its provenance.

There'd be no opener, and as ten o'clock rolled around it was filled in pretty nicely. There was an austere stage setup, with just a single mic stand and a double-racked pair of Korg keybs — Souleyman was without the electric saz that he has toured with in the past (as can be heard on the Haflat Gharbia/The Western Concerts live album) so it would just be him and keyboard player Rizan Sa'id.

After a brief introduction by Sublime Frequency's Mark Gergis, Souleyman took the stage, the set starting with the toned-down, almost ambient drift of "Mawal Hejaz", acting as a sort of moment of pause before things really got moving. But after that, the dance party was on — the remainder of the show would only include seven songs, but they were all long ones each stretching out to fill the hour-long set.

Souleyman sings traditional songs touching on eternal themes (mostly love won and lost) but this is thoroughly modern music. Powered by turbo-speed, electrified dabke beats and wiggly synth lines, at some points in doubletime bursts and in others acting as a call-and-response echo to the vocals. Each song leads with Souleyman's "heeeeeeeeeeeyy!" and he quickly had the crowd worked into a dancing, clapping roil.

Souleyman surely does know a thing or two about how to work a crowd, even if, by North American standards, his body language is strikingly minimal. He's not animated, but definitely into it. In the instrumental passages, he'd tuck the mic under his arm and lead the crowd in triple-burst claps, the faint flicker of a smile under his moustache. He had a repertoire of about four basic gestures:

  1. "come closer"
  2. clap-clap-clap
  3. upraised index finger, as if he were denoting the first item in a list
  4. shaking the microphone like a rattle

And yet there was no doubt that he was an entertainer.

Musically, Souleyman has been releasing cassettes since the mid-90's and has a pretty huge repertoire, but I was able to pick out some of the "hits" like "Leh Jani" and "Shift al Mani". And though the songs are all built from the same musical palette, there's enough (like the mutated disco groove of "Mendel") to distinguish the songs if you're so inclined.

For most of this audience, the individual songs weren't the point so much as the whole of the experience. Given how much energy one could spend dancing away, the hour-long set felt like about the right amount — but not quite enough for the knot of enthusiasts up front who kept up a chant of "O-MAR" to try and bring him back for one more.

It was interesting to try and gauge the personality behind Souleyman's persona. His image, with his always-present keffiyeh and aviator shades, impart a vision of stone-faced unknowability. And though there's no doubt plenty cultural cues that I'm not picking up on, his look seems to be most craftedly "Other" — as I'm sure some Culture Studies grad student is busily dissertating on right now.

I know there are some with more of an inside view of Arabic culture that scoff a bit at Souleyman's relative success — that he's just a wedding singer, and that you could go to a marketplace and pick up umpteen tapes by guys just like that. And perhaps that's so — but that's no less true for pretty much any "indie" band I dig, and that doesn't make them any less special. And from an outsider's view, it's also tempting to say that if there was a musical genius on the stage at this show, that it was Sa'id, with his compositions, post-modern rhythms and insanely gnarly keyb work. But in the end, the reason that this works and the reason this was a memorable show is the same as it is for anything that invokes the body-movin' imperative: "shut up and dance" trumps most any analysis you can come up with.

I posted a track from this show at the time here — and now there's also one more here.

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