Unless you are a devotee of Sublime Frequencies or regularly visit Syria, you probably can’t immediately place Omar Souleyman. Please allow this description: a man dressed in a long, white, closed-neck garment of typical Syrian fashion wearing a red and white hatta, a gold abaye, and black sunglasses. In his videos, he stands, barely moving, delivering his vocals over aggressive, melodic, frenetic electronic synthesized bouzouk and wild keyboard arpeggios. I mean it -- he is hardly moving, barely waving his hand back and forth despite the ridiculous excitement of his music. He might be the coolest guy ever, uber-unflappable, while his fans dance so closely they can’t move their arms. It's hard to tell if this is the popular style of Syrian dance, standing shoulder to shoulder and bopping along with Dabke (Syrian dance music), but it makes sense when compared to Souleyman’s super sound. Were one to watch his delivery without the sound, you might think you were observing some despot describing an official bureaucratic maneuver against a worthy opponent; instead, Souleyman is singing songs with titles that translate to “I Will Make A Trap” and “I’ll Prevent the Hunters From Hunting You.”
We, the unknowing West, were first introduced to Souleyman by another Sublime Frequencies release, Highway to Hassake. Highway was a blast of alien rhythm, uncontrollable and ecstatic. From first track to closing moments, it was hard not to feel like your brain was about to explode from the intensity. I was floored and decided Souleyman had taken the cake. So when I learned that SF was releasing another Souleyman CD, I waited with rabid anticipation. Considering that Omar Souleyman is prolific, having released over 500 cassettes in Syria, I felt certain that we had only seen a few of Omar’s sides, and I assumed that Dabke 2020 would offer a deeper look into the world of Syrian pop.
I was not disappointed. The opener, a dirge of a chant called "Atabat," is much slower and restrained than I remember Highway. But any relief that track offered was obliterated by the overwhelming synth beats on "Lansob Sherek" that come in rapid machine-gun succession with Ms. Pac-Man tones. There are only eight tracks here, but somehow, in a condensed release, SF has given us more breadth and insight into Souleyman than the hyperactive Highway to Hassake. There are, of course, multiple tracks with a healthy dose of insane serpentine synth manipulation, sounding like little kids squirming uncomfortably while waiting for the bathroom on a giant vinyl floor keyboard. But then there are more subdued efforts, like the aforementioned “La Sidounak Sayyada” (“I’ll Prevent the Hunters From Hunting You”), which is underpinned by a thumping house beat and includes a repetitive flute-like tone with a sick bridge at about 3:15 that brings in a female chorus chanting something that sounds like “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” Of course, subdued for Souleyman does not mean Enya.
"Jamaila," which seems to be an ode to a beautiful woman, is another good example of how Dabke 2020 shows Souleyman's many sides -- this time he's pining and perhaps at his most vulnerable, while the soaring keyboard figures do a great deal to help us feel his pain, his difficulty. I should really find an Arabic translator if I want to do this album justice, for I can only imagine what kind of tortured imagery is being conjured up here. Then, with next track “Qalub An NaS,” we are reunited with the Highway Souleyman style -- crazed interplay between delirious keyboard and Souleyman’s slightly raspy chant and call. By the end of "Kaset Hanzal," we are treated to almost seven minutes of slow, plodding beats, plaintive wailing by Souleyman, and some truly inspired electric bouzouk. A fitting end to an album that takes a wild journey through the world of Syrian pop music, while treating us to slight insight into Syrian folk.
I wonder how long it will take the mainstream to rip off Souleyman. It’s not hard to imagine how Coke or Gap or Whoever could appropriate this infectious epileptic sound for commercial purposes -- marketers of today seem to enjoy employing the most insanity possible in their attempts to brainwash, and Omar Souleyman could certainly rip you into a trance while some subliminal messages induce unrestrained consumer activity. His music is certainly that hypnotic, that powerful, that annoying that you could not resist. I’ll admit, if you go with 40 minutes of Dabke 2020, you might need a break. And I doubt you will pull this out for the next Super Bowl party. But, if you listened to Radio Java more than once or liked Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo, you might have enough international music savvy to hold onto the reins of Omar Souleyman’s electric stallion ride aboard the platinum chariot of Syrian pop sensationalism.
1. Atabat (A Style Of Sung Folk Poetry)
2. Lansob Sherek (I Will Make A Trap)
3. Shift Al Mani (I Saw Her)
4. La Sidounak Sayyada (I'll Prevent The Hunters From Hunting You)
5. Jamaila (Beautiful Woman)
6. Qalub An Nas (People's Hearts)
7. Laqtuf Ward Min Khaddak (I Will Pick A Flower From Your Cheek)
8. Kaset Hanzal (Drinking From The Glass Of Bitterness)