Man, what a way to lose your Syrian music cherry. Omar Souleyman is, as Miles Davis would likely say if he were around to hear his music, a motherfucker. (No higher praise.) Bursting with wild Middle Eastern energy and brio, Souleyman’s songs spur all kinds of unusual feelings. One feels deficiency in one’s vocabulary trying to describe this stuff, which Sublime Frequencies has been unleashing on the world with philanthropic zeal. I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to formulate a review of Jazeera Nights: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria. I really have no frame of reference in which to ground my observations (it’s quite shameful, as I’m of half Syrian descent). This stuff sounds pretty unprecedented to me. So these spluttering stabs at description will have to suffice.
The nine tracks on Jazeera Nights—recorded live from 1995-2009—hurtle at you full bore, with rapid, galloping, alpha-male rhythms (courtesy of Rikzan Sa'id), mad flurries of what sound like wind instruments, and turbulently undulating keyboards tuned to the key of F(renzy) (also manned by Sa'id; Hamid Souleyman also contributes bozouk to two songs). It sounds like a Middle Eastern analogue to dancehall, with its hyper-adrenalized aura and stridently emotional vocals. Souleyman’s song titles hint at the extreme tenor of his compositions (translated from the Arabic, of course): “I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands,” “Stab My Heart,” My Tears Will Make the Stones Cry,” “I Beg You, Baby”).
Sublime Frequencies’ press sheet says that Jazeera Nights “is rife with frenzied Syrian Dabke (a regional folkloric dance and party music), Iraqi Choubi and a host of Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish styles, among others—an amalgamation that exemplifies the musical essence of Northeastern Syria.” Without knowing what any of those genres mean or sound like, you can still sense in Jazeera Nights a gangsta-ass boldness and flamboyant machismo (but leavened with an all-important vulnerability) that miraculously don’t come off as posturing, but rather as the natural expression of supremely confident master musicians blessed with outsized personalities and irrepressible energy.
Sadly, Souleyman’s upcoming North American tour doesn’t include a Seattle date, reportedly due to visa limitations. However, he is performing at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival Tues. June 29, should you want to venture north. All evidence points to his live show being off the chains. (Aaannnddd, Björk is a fan, which pretty much should seal the deal for you.)