To Syria, With Love, and Beyond. Dive into the Souleyman experience.
I got off the PATH train on a Thursday night and walked through the West Village. NYU’s a favorite place of mine. a great mix of NYC’s most striking caricatures: struggling standup comics hustling to sell tickets, homeless men standing next to old men in tuxedos outside of a clusterfucked falafel joint, college kids of all shapes and colors drunkenly drowning in pizza of a quality so good they wish they’d remember it the next morning…
I was on my way to a Syrian dabke rave. I was as quirky as the rest.
Dabke, for context, is an Arabic wedding dance and attached genre of music that’s existed since, allegedly, around mid-first millennium B.C. in the Levant region (that is, eastern Mediterranean nations). The movements are a mix of entranced hand clapping and circle dances on bent squat positions, similar to that stereotypical dance you think old Russian men in funny hats do. However, the music of contemporary dabke ranges from moombahton rhythms to ambient droning. Closest thing to EDM that the Middle East has.
By contrast, I am a very, very white man.
Tonight, I was going to experience all of that in the presence of one Omar Souleyman.
Souleyman is perhaps the most famous wedding singer Syria can claim. Exiled by the Assad regime and now living in Turkey, Souleyman’s music has skyrocketed to global acclaim since an unlikely discovery by London dance scene superstar Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. Four Tet, somewhere between 2012 and 2013. They recorded Souleyman’s debut LP, Wenu Wenu, in Brooklyn, and a sophomore LP, Bahdeni Nami, followed in 2015 with additional production credits by Modeselektor. By this time, Souleyman had a few remixes from high-profile dance scene figures, like French acid techno collective Acid Arab to Icelandic avant-garde princess Björk. Souleyman’s as big a crossover superstar as the Middle East can imagine at this current point in time.
A diverse audience attended the gig – nestled into Bleeker Street’s cabaret-club Le Poisson Rouge – but the expression on everyone’s faces was uniform. Souleyman’s a weird-looking dude. He has three dance moves: 1) clapping, 2) motioning upward, as if to say “move up and down,” and moving his hands from side to side, indicating that the crowd should do the same. Not a very mobile guy. So everyone’s vibe seemed to indicate that yeah, they were in on the joke, but they were going to have a kickass time anyway.
Souleyman’s minimal stage presence is echoed by his keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, who just stands behind a two-tier synthesizer setup — but that’s no matter, the music is entrancing. Unbeknownst to most Western ears, Sa’id has tuned his keyboards down and made use of the modulation wheel to weave long microtonal solos, often in fugue with Souleyman’s vocal lines. The result is addicting and hypnotic. (A drink or two helped my dance moves for sure).
Going through his hits, from “Khattaba” and “Bahdeni Nami” to throwback “Shift al Mani,” while introducing a new tune or two from his upcoming LP release on Mad Decent, To Syria, With Love, the crowd remained energetically fixated.
Not an evening my ears will ever forget.
Spotify: Omar Souleyman
This article was written by Dave Pilmenstein. Follow Dave on Instagram @pilmenfiend and KOSIMO on all social media platforms @KOSIMOgroup