Before being elevated to international star status, Omar Souleyman was a relative unknown in Syria, playing wedding celebrations and khattabas (engagement parties) along with his keyboard player and MC and, when he could afford it, with a small ensemble of live musicians. He spent well over a decade playing local celebrations and churning out tapes that were sold in kiosks in Damascus and Aleppo.
Seattle label Sublime Frequencies generally puts out psyche, garage and pop culled from crate-digging in the Middle East, East Asia and everything in between, and the result is a respectable catalog filled with tracks from bands that are obscure but amazing. Souleyman, therefore, is something of an outlier for the label in that he has managed to obtain something close to star status: Björk wrote about him in 2009 for NPR's “You Must Hear This” series, and announced in early February of this year that she would be teaming up with him for what Pitchfork called his “first crossover into western pop.” Souleyman just released his third compilation, Jazeera Nights: Folk and Pop Sounds From Syria, with Sublime to more rave reviews on Pitchfork and in Dusted magazine, and is embarking on a world tour.
His three releases with Sublime are taken from those very same tapes he sold in kiosks — in other words, this is not a Western approximation of Syrian music or world-influenced techno. Strictly speaking, it is Arab folk music, although it should be noted that “folk” has connotations that don't accurately convey what is going on here. Souleyman's records are folk in that they feature certain set rhythmic and lyrical forms popular throughout the Levant. They are not folk in that they sound far more like what you'd hear in a nightclub than in a bucolic Middle Eastern market.
Although the selections on his most recent release are live, the sound is studio quality. Most feature driving, pulsing beats made with electronic drums (using traditional rhythmic patterns) and noodling melodic lines on electronic approximations of the ney (flute) or oud (lute).
When Souleyman performs live, he wears sunglasses, a thobe (traditional robe) and kaffiya, tendencies that have led reviewers to traffic in inevitable tropes of Orientalism and exoticism in their evaluation of his craft. Indeed, stripped of context, devoid of reliable or accurate liner notes or reviews about what this music is and why Souleyman is doing what he's doing, the whole enterprise can become — as Dusted put it — “a cultural fetishist's wet dream.”
But the music also is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing, making listeners want to stamp their feet and move. As Björk put it back in 2009, “It's really alive and very urgent.”
Omar Souleyman, with Moon Pearl, performs Tues., July 12, at the Echo, 1822 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, 8:30 p.m. $10-$12. 18 and over.