Monday, June 22, 2009
Omar Souleyman - Highway to Hassake (Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria) (Sublime Frequencies 2XLP)
A recent discovery to listeners in this country perhaps, Omar Souleyman has nevertheless been a staple of, in the words of the press release, "Syrian street-level folk-pop" for years now. This collection unearths some of his strongest moments put to tape, compiled and lovingly assembled by the always on point Sublime Frequencies imprint. The result is a non-stop collection of the singer's signature grooves, which stand tall beside this shore's often paltry pop offerings.
It is always a difficult job task to listen to foreign music without bringing too many cultual expectations into the mix, but here most of those expectations are shattered in seconds. Immediately identifiable as an import, the work manages to erase any preconceptions, meeting its audience well beyond the halfway point and, arms folded, declaring itself with confident poise. From the opening "Leh Jani," whose snaking synth lines are met by Souleyman's instantly catchy melodic chanting, it is clear that this is a wholly conceived and realized musical approach.
That approach is marked by a dichotomy between the spare instrumental presence—most of it being played with only an accompanying synthesizer, guitar and drum machine, it seems—and the full, even over-the-top quality of the sounds used. Used in conjunction with traditional sounding melodies only deepens the strength of these works. "Dabke 2001," for example, presents frantically melodic arpeggiations engaging in a call and response with the singer as a steady up-tempo pulse pushes the whole thing forward. With synth tones resembling computerized guitar shredding, the piece is at once a kind of low-tech dance music and, conversely, a hyper-futuristic sounding space serenade.
The slower numbers are just as strong, often providing even more space for the eccentricities of the sound to come to the fore. "Atabat," an eight-minute mostly instrumental excursion, has a tempo so slow that the pitch-shifted melodies bring out the distintive potential of playing music whose melodic content extends beyond the limitations of the keyboard itself. Odd chirps enter and accentuate while the guitar frenetically dances above, further developing the content present throughout.
The nearly psychedelic beginning to "Bashar Ya Habib Al Shaab," with foreboding synth lines and Souleyman's echoing vocal refrains, is at once grating and cosmically attuned, relentless in its power before hastening the pace over halfway through to take part in a kind of droning rap. "Don't Wear Black, Green Suits You Better" continues in the poppier end of the program with more interlocking lines between the three main melodic providers.
Known for the dark sunglasses he adorns nearly always, Souleyman is a true Syrian legend who, we can hope, will finally have a chance to be appreciated outside of his homeland. Given the immense versatility of his outfit and the undeniable power of his vocal delivery, perhaps this is Souleyman's opportunity to extend his listenership. For now, Highway to Hassake is a fine intro to the singer's enormous output.