Omar Souleyman Omar SouleymanJazeera Nights
Possibly, one of the most resounding WTF’s that we have experienced in our lives took place last spring when Omar Souleyman was included on the line-up for Sonar 2009. Incredulity reigned on the first day, and scepticism on the second. But on the third day, nobody could stop imitating the little dance he did in the video for “Leh Jani”. While some people couldn’t get over their prejudices towards the words “gas station cassette”, others saw the event as an exceptional opportunity to have a laugh and dance around the Sonar Village. The latter group was the dominant, and what was experienced with Souleyman on stage will go down in history as one of the most absurd, hilarious moments, but also one of the most tantric and fucking sincere moments in the entire festival. By chance, a handful of presumably superficial, cool, English-speaking trendy girls getting over their Thursday-night hangover –with more alcohol, not with ibuprofen, that’s the attitude– and trying to imitate the dancers at Sultana’s. Not even that panorama could alter the hieratic presence of the Syrian, who we could only see giving a little jump when the drum came in on “ Leh Jani” (I’ll bet my right arm that the poor guy had never heard himself on such a big sound system).
Implicitly, there is something of this June evening in “Jazeera Nights”, in the speed, the frenetic, repetitive rhythm, and the four-by-four structures of the rhythm boxes on the album. Mark Gergis, owner of Sublime Frequencies and the person in charge of choosing the Syrian’s songs for these compilations from the over 500 cassettes put out by Souleyman to find the ones with similarities, reminiscences, and structures of techno hardened over the last 20 years. There’s no need to add that the presence of instrumentation suitable to oriental folklore, as well as Souleyman’s voice, prevent one from classifying this album as electronic. Nevertheless, the rhythmic skeletons of “ Ala Il Hanash Madgouga,” “ Hot Il Khanjar Bi Gleibi,” “ Dazeitlak Dezzelli,” or “ Li Raja Behawakom” could fit into mixes supplied by the crème de la crème of ethnic music (Radioclit, Isa GT, Douster, Chief Boima and endless other names that fit into the “Funk Mundial” compilations of Man Recordings, just to give the reader an idea).
Although the rhythmic basses of dabke pop attract the listener’s attention at first, the real spell is cast with the smell of incense, patchouli, and samosa. What do the melodies and arpeggios of oriental musical culture have that makes them so popular? I truly don’t know. But songs like “Eih Min Elemkom”, which does without percussion, or “Labji Wa Bajji Il Hajar”, where the cadence is slow and sinuous, like the walking of a camel, are equally enjoyable. The key might be in that mix of mysticism and forbidden eroticism that pervades the most common stereotypes of the Arab world: “A Thousand and One Nights”, the dance of the seven veils, Jasmine as the Disney princess who showed her body off the most... What is clear is that placing these characteristic melodic lines at the service of pop tends to give excellent results. And if not, let them tell that to Britney or Timbaland.
As it says somewhere on the Sublime Frequencies website, Souleyman’s folk pop with a rudimentary infrastructure has never been considered an exportable national cultural asset of Syria by the pertinent authorities, despite his popularity there. However, taken out of context and located in other atmospheres, he manages to activate the spirit of the rhythm. There is no doubt of that at this stage of the game. But what would have happened if instead of Souleyman Gergis had run into Junco, Camela or Kayma? Folks at Sublime Frequencies, if you’re reading me, take note, there’s a gold mine there to be explored.