Thursday, November 3, 2011

Show review: Omar Souleyman, Black Bear Combo, Pillars & Tongues at Empty Bottle, 11/2

By Reagan Healey

Omar Souleyman
Omar Souleyman might have the most enchanting backstory I have ever read. Before he was the venerable mascot of world dance music he most definitely is today, young Omar apparently worked as a factotum in Northern Syria, taking whatever jobs he could to support himself during the decades that saw the Lebanese Civil War and the Hama Massacre. Souleyman’s own biography makes pre-millennial Syria sound like an altogether shitty place to live, but the young Omar was able to amuse himself by, of all things, taking the stage at weddings to belt out what I can only imagine to be the Syrian versions of karaoke favorites. Yeah, Omar Souleyman was that guy.

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.

Omar Souleyman
Souleyman’s show at the Empty Bottle was a more bare arrangement than most of his previous performances. Gone were the dancers and traditional sitar-esque stringed instruments. Gone were the mysterious poets who sometimes follow Souleyman onstage solely for the purpose of whispering in his ear (I couldn’t make this up). Gone was Souleyman’s entire entourage save for himself and his longtime collaborator, keyboardist Rizan Sa’id. Omar Souleyman has always been at its core a duo: Rizan Sa’id the musician and secret mechanic of the pop hooks that fuel the act, and Omar Souleyman the rockstar cartoon character in sunglasses and khaffiya.

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 problem with this kind of unapologetic club atmosphere, though, is that it has little patience for anything else. Chicago band Pillars and Tongues appeared in support of perhaps their strongest record to date, The Pass and Crossings. Watching them perform an altogether haunting and pitch-perfect set to far too sparse a crowd, though, I couldn’t help but notice how much Pillars and Tongues has suffered from the wholly inaccurate (and usually toxic) label of “folk.” There is hardly anything “folk” about Pillars and Tongues. They are, in fact, further from anything remotely resembling traditional than even Omar Souleyman. Listening to their ghostly harmonies –a brooding blend of Active Child’s ecclesiastical reverberations with Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for There Will be Blood, it’s hard to fathom how they were even saddled with the term. Is it because Elizabeth Remis plays a violin?

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
That said, Black Bear Combo also touts a background in jazz improvisation, and I think their trumpet-player actually was wearing a flat cap. Despite some early mixing difficulties, however (the saxophonist remarked that they sounded like they were “in a swimming pool”), they performed an undeniably infectious set. The entire crowd all at once decided to do its best impression of a Greek wedding reception. Funny enough, Black Bear Combo was perhaps the only truly traditional act of the night. They’re primarily a Balkan brass outfit, so if you’re into acts like Beirut or Boban Marković Orkestar, then you’d probably like Black Bear Combo, too. Honestly, despite the overflowing buckets of energy (and sweat) they poured inside The Empty Bottle, they brought little variation to the genre save the introduction of a prominent saxophone. When it was an alto sax, Black Bear Combo were exciting to the point that it seemed the floor would break beneath the constant stomping. When it was a tenor sax, the floor still swelled with every drumbeat, but I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling I was listening to a very long intro to a Tom Waits song that refused to begin. Regardless, by the time Omar Souleyman took the stage, Black Bear Combo had ensured that the whole building already smelled very much like armpits.


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  1. Who is this Reagan Healey? And how does he capture the honesty of a wednesday night in a midsized Chicago music venue? He seems like a fun-loving loner who thinks in cells that divide quickly--all the while tapping his feet nervously, trying not to look too interested or too much of a douchebag. Were is his novel or collection of witty essays? This is a fantastic review but judging by Healey's laserlike attention to vibe and sound, he was not drunk enough to properly enjoy this event.

  2. I agree with the previous comment. Although, I find Healey's philosophical waxings most insightful, I feel that one cannot capture the true essence of Souleyman's unique brand of Syrian wedding music without being blisteringly drunk. I attended the concert, and I concur that Souleyman has departed from his Syrian roots. However, as a fan of the American music scene, I am pleased that we appropriate the best and brightest while giving a big middle finger to the ole's Middle East.