Omar Souleyman keeps his distance. Even as his fame grows in Europe and America — where, thanks to the promotional drive of the Sublime Frequencies label, he has expanded his sphere of influence beyond his homeland of Syria and the Levant region — Souleyman remains inscrutable, unknowable, and inexplicable in his ever-present shades and keffiyeh. Sure, we are getting to know him a little more, a process bound to continue with this third compilation of Souleyman’s work released by Sublime Frequencies. In a useful liner note, the label’s Mark Gergis contextualizes the man and his music and brief translations are given for most of the songs. But there remains an unbridgeable gap that emanates not only from cultural difference, but also from a refusal on the part of label and artist to play the “world music” game, to explain the otherness away.
Omar Souleyman is inexplicable. This makes his music continually thrilling to listeners unfamiliar with the Middle Eastern folk and pop sounds from which he draws his inspiration. It is hard to measure how this thrill compares to that which, we are told, his Levantine audience finds and which saw Souleyman become a star of the cassette kiosks of Syria from the mid-1990s onwards. Jazeera Nights collects 15 years’ worth of such recordings and, though we are presented with edited highlights and hence denied (or spared?) the long-form performances that would have accompanied weddings and other festive occasions, there is plenty of material available to immerse oneself in.
The nine performances offer draws on styles such as dabke and Iraqi choubi (a compilation of which was released by Sublime Frequencies in 2005), along with Turkish and Middle Eastern folk and pop musics. Souleyman’s signature sound is his distinctive voice, alternating between assertive declaration and romantic yearning, accompanied by the infectious, driving “Arabic-modified synthesizers” of Rizan Sa’id and, on two of the tracks, Hamid Souleyman’s bozouk. This mixture ensures that space and distance are always present in the music. This is true not only of the distance between “tradition” and “modernity” that is constantly asserted by the unavoidable synth lines, but also of the otherworldly, cosmic places to which the electronic sounds occasionally travel (for example, the space rock that invades “Dazeitlak Dezzelli” midway through). In the case of the 10-minute “Mandal / Metel Ii Sukkar Ala Ii Shai” space is evoked primarily through the track’s lengthy running time and, by its close, one really feels one has gone the distance with Souleyman.
Other distances can be noted — for example, the distance between singer and material. Following the tradition of ataba poetry performance, a poet will stand close to Souleyman and whisper verses into his ear. The singer then conveys these words to the audience in musical form. While this allows for songs to be matched to the particular occasion and audience, and so is arguably closer to the kind of direct communication so many performers aim for, it also shatters one of the foremost strategies of authentication used by “Western” singer-songwriters, the melding of the “I” of the writer with the “I” of the singer. Another way to look at it would be to suggest that this model is closer to styles of performance that are based upon a division of labor between lyric writer, composer, and singer. “Western” examples of this process abound, from early 20th century Tin Pan Alley, mid-century Brill Building, and contemporary pop factories to non-Anglophone genres such as Portuguese fado. However, the ultimate failure of such comparisons only serves to assert the distance between dabke and other styles outside the Levant.
There is also a sense of distance stemming from the technological medium in which the original recordings circulated, with a notable tinniness coming from the cassette-based recordings. Souleyman does not sound close to us. On occasion, it is as if he is shouting to us from Syria (which he is, of course. It’s just unusual for a listener to be so aware of the fact). There is none of the warm intimacy so prized by contemporary recording techniques — especially those found in world music recordings — where the sacred silence of the digital recording is used to enhance authenticity and tradition rather than challenge them. Souleyman’s work bypasses that strange paradox that allows the silence of the studio’s non-place to promote the place of the music’s origin.
All this distance means that Omar Souleyman is far from being a “typical” world music artist, even if he remains a fine example of what many musicians typically do around the world, namely experiment with, extemporize, and extend musical styles. And Sublime Frequencies, thankfully, continues to be far from a typical world music label, even as it exemplifies what is great and necessary about recording the world’s music. The label proves that respect can be shown to other musical cultures by maintaining a sense of healthy alienation rather than going for the standardization option.