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Omar Souleyman - Highway to Hassake (Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria)

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Artist: Omar Souleyman

Album: Highway to Hassake (Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria)

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Nov. 1, 2007

For Americans who follow the news, there are but a few narratives to associate with the country of Syria. Diplomatic stalemates, friction with its neighbors, the recent destruction of a suspected nuclear site – the stories reported are inevitably of conflict and dispute. More generally, they are stories told without qualification, as if these descriptions of raw politics defined Syria in full. Perhaps it is with these background presuppositions that the same Americans will approach the music of Omar Souleyman, a Syrian performer whose first U.S.-available full-length, Highway to Hassake, was released earlier this year. Yet, after even the most cursory listening, it is from these presuppositions that these listeners will have to part.

Hassake is a catalogue of Souleyman's material released between 1996 and 2006, and most of the album is similar in form. Souleyman works according to a skeletal model. A drum, prerecorded, keeps time; the thump of a bass punctuates the measures and periodically provides a downbeat. Layered atop is a keyboard synthesized to a reedy, almost honking tone. Then there is Souleyman, the centerpiece. Souleyman is as much a toaster as he is a troubadour – his refrains are chanted rather than sung. With a brassy rasp, Souleyman vocalizes in a manner that is more didactic than melodious. When put together, the result is a set of grooves simply arranged but seemingly complete. It is a sound rough yet robust.

The general structure of Souleyman's music is call and response; after every two lines by Souleyman, the keyboard reciprocates with a brief riff. It is similar in style to classic American musical forms like the blues and even perhaps the music of Appalachia. The tempo, however, suggests a perspective more modern. Souleyman makes music that is fleet-footed, if not frantic. To the American ear, it is music for gyrating – though video clips of Souleyman suggest that, for him at least, the music has a less corporeal effect. Souleyman barely flinches while performing; masked by a set of wide-rimmed sunglasses and a full moustache, Souleyman is unfazed by his own musical kinetics. For listeners with only the record, however, the movement in Souleyman's music cannot be denied. It is an instigation to dance – and it needs no translation.

Even if Souleyman is accessible, there is still the question of what to make of Hassake aside from its invitation for body moving. At a most basic level, Souleyman complicates how a listener, whose knowledge is confined to international politics and front-page stories, might otherwise understand Syria and its culture. If this were all that Souleyman’s music offered, however, Hassake would be unsatisfying. In an age of multiculturalism, where nuance is preferred to generalization, a challenge to the narrow-minded conception of Syria as a political bête noire is obvious to the point of platitude. Hassake is more than merely adding detail to a broad depiction.

The appeal of Hassake is not for a deepened understanding of difference. Rather, Hassake stakes a challenge to the basic proposition that American and Syrian musical cultures need to be cleaved firmly at all. For, as Hassake demonstrates, there has been a bleeding between the two. This intermingling is proved by the album's service as the sourcebook for some of the current trends in Western pop, and for the location of Western pop in Souleyman’s repertoire. Hip hop and electronic music – the music of American clubs – have already invoked the sounds of the near and far East, like those released by Souleyman. Apparently, as Hassake suggests, the incorporated are incorporators, too. On “Arabic Dabke,” for example, the influence of American music on Souleyman is palpable. Souleyman uses the bass to create space between it and the backbeat, echoing a tactic used in jazz, R&B, and, most prominently today, in hip hop. Although a "dabke" (a traditional line dance of sorts) in name, “Arabic Dabke” is really a strut at heart. Souleyman has produced not a reinterpretation but a remix.

Parts of Hassake cannot rightly be described as exhibiting elements of American style – or, alternatively, as exhibiting elements that American music has already appropriated for itself. For instance, the opening wails of "Atabat" or "Bashar Ya Habib Al Shaab" seem distinctly foreign and, at this moment, immune to any crossover. Nonetheless, the frequent instances of Souleyman's shared tastes and assumptions with American music make any attempt to limit him to the narrow category of Syrian music an error. Souleyman's use of high-speed drums, his emphasis on the downbeat, and his embrace of the keyboard’s synthetic fuzz are, in varying degrees, allusions to American pop. And as American pop expands its limits, stirring the sounds of farther cultures into its stew, the otherness of Souleyman's music will dissipate. Boundaries will still be set. But, as Hassake portends, they need be neither inflexible nor definite.

By Ben Yaster

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