Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Brilliant but ow. No one who enjoys music like this can say that they don’t understand the appeal of boxing or rugby or being stabbed in the head. Omar Souleyman shouts and wails and the saz wails after him and the music buzzes like a hive of bees and jabs like a wasp and is brutally energising and that’s all good but ow.
In the long-ago days when the known world stopped before it reached the middle of Africa, Syria was a lighthouse of culture and its capital, Damascus, was famed for the brilliance of its arts and sciences. Today it maintains its old classical musical styles without being exceptionally well-known for them, while its mainstream popular musicians take their cues from whatever is coming out of the region’s pop powerhouse, Egypt.
Highway to Hassake is not pop, nor does it sound classical, nor strictly folkish, although there are moments of all of those; the album is animated by a ritual wildness that reaches its apotheosis in “Alkhatiba Zaffouha”. The drums in “Alkhatiba Zaffouha” rattle at a hysterical speed and the other instruments squeeze themselves tightly together. About three minutes into the song there’s a whine of distortion because the microphone can’t take it any more. It has the intensity of the Master Musicians of Joujouka with the movement of a dervish. (Turkey, the home of the dervishes, or mevlevi, is just next door to the north; and there are threads of Turk-like folk music knitted through some of Souleyman’s songs.)
The intention seems to be to pour frenzied energy into your brain until it overloads and you disappear into an ecstatic mass of people, the whole room in a trance, gasping and pounding its feet on the floor. It’s not music that was made to be enjoyed in solitude. It asks for perspiring crowds. Souleyman sings, and a man hoots in the background. The passion in “Alkhatiba Zaffouha” has a bloodiness in it; it’s on the edge at which uncontrollable things occur, murder and confusion, a way for the pent Syrian working man to blow off steam at the end of the week.
Labels have their own personalities, even the ones that package music in other languages. If you were visiting a city and Putumayo was your guide then it would take you to a nice park and invite you to enjoy the flowers and throw a frisbee around. The Rough Guides would escort you to a safe but varied neighbourhood and introduce you to different people. “Here’s a butcher,” it would say. “Here’s a librarian. Here’s the local busker with her trombone and hula hoop.”
Sublime Frequencies would take you by the arm and pull you into back alleyways where the pimps and touts are waiting along the walls and cock-fighting pits make the air smell roughly of feathers. The musicians this label chooses are not world-famous, nor are they likely to become world-famous, and the countries it decides to patronise are not the ones that other labels go after. The others head for West Africa and its easy-to-like melodic musicians. Sublime Frequencies aims itself at North Korea, Iraq, and the Cambodian border tribes. “I am feral,” it tells you through its albums. “I want you to know that I’m going to show you the edges of things.”
The roughness extends to their sound quality, which tends to have some trace of a medium left on it. A tape-head will squeak, a piece of recording equipment will groan, or a radio dial will wobble askew and send a drift of static across the music. The songs on Highway to Hassake have kept the artificial metallic rawness imparted to them by the cassette albums they were originally issued on. Some of the tracks sound like the tinnier end of Bollywood or Pakistani pop. My resident layman listened to half a song and said that it reminded him of Dahler Mehndi’s “Tunak Tunak Tun”. This isn’t universal though. The kamancheh (is it a kamancheh? I’m guessing) in “Jalsat Atabat” is sweet and stooping, no rawness there. And in “Atabat” you have the long mourning noises of Greece. “Oh, ooooooh,” Souleyman moans while the strings tack and smite. In “Jani (2)” he cries out again, oh oh, and fuzz rimes his voice as it rises.
It’s music for clapping your hands and whirling to, music for mass, messy, male bounce-fests. There are no women on the album. When audience noise infiltrates the background of a song, all of the voices are masculine. Highway to Hassake is a clangour, it’s banshee tribal folk-pop, ringing in the advent of dirt and the feral misadventures of life. It’s harsh; get used to it.