Twenty years, 500+ wedding albums, a few Björk remixes, and a handful of festivals later, Souleyman has become a bona fide star of everything frantically danceable. He appeared this Wednesday night to an enthusiastic audience at The Empty Bottle with local opening acts Black Bear Combo and Pillars and Tongues. I was surprised to learn that despite his overwhelming success in the West, Souleyman remains largely unknown in the Arabic world outside of his native Syria, where his unmistakable image can be found on the shelves of virtually every convenience store and gas station.
Honestly, it’s not that surprising. Souleyman’s appearance at The Empty Bottle was in support of his newest album, Haflat Gharbia (The Western Concerts). According to Sublime Frequencies, the album “represents an hour of the best moments from the western tours between 2009 and 2011.” What it fails to mention is that in that time, Souleyman has hardly returned to Syria at all. The album may as well have been subtitled “The Only Concerts I’ve Performed for Three Years,” because while Omar Souleyman is nothing if not hardworking, his Western audience needs to come to terms with what’s quickly becoming an undeniable fact: his Western audience is his primary audience.
Granted, this is less an accusation than a simple observation that Souleyman has become popular on a worldwide scale –thanks in no small part to the efforts of Sublime Frequencies, the de facto tastemakers of all music that can be considered “world” or “exotic.” Souleyman may have begun his musical career as the emcee for countless dabke dances, but he has become since the mid-'90s something completely different from (and altogether more original than) his traditional Syrian roots. While folk-pop is still an applicable label here, bear in mind that the emphasis is placed squarely on the “pop.” Omar Souleyman is absolutely a pop act, as catchy and danceable as it is forgettably vapid fun.
I mean it wholeheartedly when I write that this is absolutely for the better.
I, like most of the audience in attendance that night, am no expert in traditional (or rather, non-traditional) Syrian wedding music. I’m familiar with Souleyman’s biggest hit, “Leh Jani,” and little more than that. I certainly can’t understand, much less sing along with heavily-stylized Arabic lyrics. I do however, recognize what it means when a singer begins absolutely every single song with an emphatically overcool “yyeeeaaahh!” --it means he has come to party and nothing else. Cultural detectives looking for insight into an underexposed country might have been sorely disappointed. Luckily, no one like that showed up. The people who did show up came purely to dance their asses off to 100% insane hyperbolic club music. In a certain context, it seems that Souleyman’s “exoticness” serves mainly to legitimize a surprisingly familiar electro-club disregard that would otherwise be passé. But who cares about context when you find yourself in the kind of crowd that actually dances? I noticed the accordion-player from Black Bear Combo in the audience, and I had no idea he had moves like that.
|Pillars and Tongues|
The disappointing turnout was probably due in large part to this chronic mischaracterization of the band –it was no-doubt the dubious “folk” label that got them on the same ticket as the subversively pseudo-traditional club pop of Souleyman and the downright Balkan stomp of Black Bear Combo in the first place. It is unfortunate that Pillars and Tongues were asked to open for such sledgehammer-subtle acts specifically because there are simply so many subtle things to admire about Pillars and Tongues’ unique sound. Beneath the obvious gimmickry of the droning harmonium and the heavily-distorted violin are distinctly hip-hop beats. This is where the band’s background in jazz improvisation becomes really evident. And while most of us have the nasty habit of conflating the word “jazz” with flat cap-wearing dorks and overwrought melodies, its effect in this case was to lend the group an eerily trip-hop atmosphere. I swear at a couple points in the set I detected slowed-down versions of Amen Breaks. It was this strange juxtaposition: church harmonies that constantly threatened to veer into atonality with hip-hop syncopations, I think, that helped Pillars and Tongues to become the most surprisingly memorable act of the night.
|Black Bear Combo|
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