Omar Souleyman takes his brand of Syrian folk-pop to the 9:30 Club
By Aaron Leitko,
One nation’s wedding jams are another’s musical vanguard. Such is the situation for Omar Souleyman, who performs Dabke, a strain of folk-pop from his native Syria. At home, Souleyman is an established folk musician, performing at weddings and parties in addition to nightclub gigs. But recently, his work — which pairs call-and-response lyrics sung in Kurdish and Arabic with incessant electronic rhythms — has found favor among Western fans of underground music and indie rock.
Making his D.C. debut Wednesday night at the 9:30 Club, Souleyman performed a one-hour set to a modest-size audience. If it didn’t quite grasp the lyrics, it could at least get into the rhythms.
Although Souleyman has a sizable reputation in Syria (and at least one pan-Arabian hit, “Khataba”), his music is not the type of stuff typically exported to Western record stores. The songs are highly repetitive and rarely rely on verse-chorus-verse structures, instead alternating between Souleyman’s lyrics and blistering keyboard solos by his longtime accompanist, Rizan Sa’id.
But in 2009, Seattle-based record label Sublime Frequencies released “Highway to Hassake,” a compilation of tunes from Souleyman’s numerous cassette releases. While the recordings were of modest fidelity — many of them distortion-laden soundboard tapes, often made at the singer’s wedding gigs — they have an ecstatic, borderline psychedelic urgency. Western audiences and pop stars such as Bjork and Gorillaz caught on.
Souleyman has not altered his shtick to suit his new clientele, though. On Wednesday, he appeared onstage wearing a checkered head scarf and dark sunglasses. He periodically paced the stage and clapped to the music but mostly stood stationary, gripping the microphone and spitting rapid-fire verse while Sa’id played solos on a synthesizer programmed to emulate traditional Middle Eastern instruments and percussion.
At times, the volume and intensity of the music recalled the ’70s proto-punk band Suicide, which made similar, if less technically capable, use of keyboards and drum machines to generate minimalist pounding. But that’s still a bit of a stretch. The only English words used during the set came from a sample on Sa’id’s keyboard, which invoked the audience to “break it down.”
Souleyman shared the bill with Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based quintet that retrofits vintage Cambodian pop music with elements of American garage and psychedelic rock. Although the group has a new album, “Cannibal Courtship,” which leans toward quirky and kitschy exotica music, it mostly sidelined that material in favor of its classic Khmer language fare.
The reference points — surf guitars, funk riffs and effects — made a suitable companion to Souleyman’s performance by virtue of singer Chhom Nimol’s otherworldly vocals.