May 16, 2017
An L.A. crowd’s expressions of unfiltered joy at anything — let alone two men on a stage with just a stacked pair of Korg keyboards — come in small, rare doses. But in defiance of the May Gray weather and the persistent fog of disaffected hipness, that’s exactly what Omar Souleyman, the displaced Syrian wedding singer and dabke master, brought to the Echoplex last night: unclouded giddiness.
Souleyman, at a spry 50 and dressed in his grey robe-like djellaba, red-checked keffiyeh headscarf and foreboding shades, looks exactly like the kind of nightmare that prompts Jeff Sessions to wake up in a cold sweat and start feverishly polishing his blunderbuss in preparation for Holy War. But he’s just a wedding singer, not a mythical global menace. And with his I-give-sub-zero-fucks-about-your-political-paranoia face, he did his wedding singer chic for nearly two whole hours.
While Souleyman has no outward political inklings and speaks very little of it, his hometown in rural northeast Syria, Tell Tamer in the Al-Hasakah region, is basically the linchpin in a conflict that threatens to upend global order. He hasn't seen it in six years. In fact, on his previous albums, he barely mentioned it. Only now, with his new To Syria, With Love, out next month on Diplo's Mad Decent label, have thoughts of his lost homeland begun breaching the surface. Deftly working within the parameters of his image as a love-professing singer, he mentions it only wistfully: ”And every wound calls out/I am missing Al-Jazira” — the historical name of his home province.
Last night, you’d have been hard-pressed to feel any of the somberness in those longing lyrics. The multi-culti crowd of beatnuts, hip-shakers, older Middle Eastern folks and stoned 20somethings ecstatically reached for the ceiling, clapped in unison and, yes, actually circle-pitted to Souleyman’s souped-up beats and synthed traditional melodies. Folks got their inner dervishes all whirled-the-fuck-up.
Souleyman appeared to float from beneath his robe, occasionally arm-pitting his mic to clap and shake hands with clamoring fans. He frequently broke his stone-faced character to mirror the smiling faces of his adoring crowd. How can you blame him? The mood was goofy and blissed.
For all Souleyman's charm, however, the background star of his act is keyboardist Hasan Alo. His finger-blistering synth solos, set to sound like Middle-Eastern reed clarinets, seemed to defy aural physics, as he explored their full range in an seamless string of relentless notes.
Pulled into the EDM festival circuit a decade ago by the likes of Four Tet and Portland’s Sublime Frequencies label, Souleyman hardly fits a well-defined category and it's difficult to explain what makes it work so well. Is it dabke? Is it choubi? Is it acid house? Sure. Yes. All of it.
For what it’s worth — and I mean this with utmost love — it’s really just cheesy wedding music. It’s plugged-in folk art. It’s the Middle Eastern equivalent of country line dancing, from the multicultural soup that is rural Syria. You can dress it with hipness, you can accelerate the beats and slap Diplo’s label on it, but it’s still just blue-collar party music from a different blue-collar backwater. And it’s fucking beautiful.
The spores of the Syrian civil war have ejected themselves into cultural tradewinds in such a way as to whip up America Firsters and trust-fund Berkeley kids into open physical confrontation. But Souleyman is the antidote riding those same currents. His nullifiers are beats, vibes and songs about love.
Souleyman didn’t ask to be the darling of global hedonists or to be the ambassador for a pariah class of refugees, but he owns both roles in the best, humblest way possible. And he owned a culturally weary L.A. crowd for at least one night.
Omar Souleyman's newest album, To Syria, With Love, is out June 2 on Mad Decent Records.