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Omar Souleyman - Jazeera Nights

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Artist: Omar Souleyman

Album: Jazeera Nights

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Jun. 29, 2010

Western hipsters may be excused for thinking that Omar Souleyman, with his sporty red-and-white checked headwrap, thick mustache and wire-framed shades, is making music for them. As the leading exporter of Syrian dabke, a form of folk-influenced dance pop from a cloistered Muslim nation untouched by contemporary irony, Souleyman is a cultural fetishist’s wet dream. His first two releases for Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies garnered endorsements from electronic illuminati such as Bjork, and a second international tour by the singer is currently underway.

Prior to his discovery by the West, however, Souleyman’s main functions were Islamic wedding ceremonies in his home country, and Jazeera Nights captures that particular vibe better than any album you’re likely to hear. Not to dismiss the man’s talent or the cultural significance of his art, but to most Western ears, the nine tracks here — edited from live performances recorded between 1995 to 2009 on the perennially-cool medium of the cassette tape — offer at best an exotic curiosity.

For starters, the musical terrain here isn’t all that novel. The liner notes may say Souleyman combines street-level dabke with Iraqi choubi and other regional folk styles, but taken out of context, the results merely sound like techno (or at times, reggaeton) dressed up with some neat, arabic-flavored synth work, the latter quickly becoming more tedious with each indistinguishable track.

Over the relentless beats, Souleyman’s voice rises and falls hypnotically, but seldom strays in tone or pace, and there is very little melodic variation. “Ah, but these are Western musical trappings,” you might be thinking to yourself, “the extraneous indulgences of centuries of European decadence.” Perhaps, but without these guides, the vocals (in Arabic) convey no discernible emotion, nor project any message above the din. Only the helpfully translated titles (“My Tears Will Make the Stones Cry,” “Stab My Heart,” and “I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands,” just to name a few) offer a glimpse into the grim and serious love poetry that is the heart of dabke, standing in stark contrast to the party atmosphere evoked by the hyper-pulsating rhythms.

It may be that actually seeing dabke performed, preferably in its proper setting, is a more enjoyable way of consuming it than simply hearing it out of context. On record, however, Jazeera Nights is simply monotonous, its exoticism not enough to sustain a set of dance pop that by any Western artist would be considered formulaic.

By Nick Cuce'

Other Reviews of Omar Souleyman

Highway to Hassake (Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria)

Dabke 2020

Haflat Gharbia (The Western Concerts)

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Find out more about Sublime Frequencies

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