PRINT November 2011


the Omar Souleyman Group

Omar Souleyman Group performing at the Paredes de Coura Festival, Praia do Tabuão, Portugal, August 17, 2011. Photo: Filipa Oliveira/Palco Principle.

YOU SWAY; a kaffiyeh-clad man wearing aviator sunglasses struts across the stage. This is no mere tableau of shades-and-scarf radical chic, however: There is a definite tension to the scene, a fervency. The singer, who is Syrian, is chanting lyrics in Arabic while a fellow band member, a poet, whispers intently into his ear. As he intones choppy refrains, the singer’s every phrase is answered by a wind or string instrument tuned to a Middle Eastern scale. You venture closer to scrutinize the musician behind him and discover he is playing a Korg synthesizer, dishing out lightning-fast licks on the keyboard with his right hand while the left deftly manipulates a pitch-bending wheel. It is an acrobatic, almost mechanized, feat.

This is the Omar Souleyman Group, who are in the midst of a 2011 tour of the US, Europe, and Canada and recently released the CD Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts. Having produced more than six hundred albums of dabke (“foot-stamping”) music, most of it custom-crafted for Syrian wedding parties, the band has gone international, introducing the style—already wildly popular in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq—to a Western audience. Their stripped-down recordings were first introduced on this side of the Atlantic in 2004, via the Sublime Frequencies label, and have attracted the likes of Björk, Damon Albarn, and Santos Party House kids. There may be more than a whiff of exoticism in the West’s embrace of Souleyman’s groove, a charge some have leveled at this experimental record label in general. But hearing the band’s secret weapon—the virtuosic keyboardist Rizan Sa’id—dispels assertions of mere Orientalism. Sa’id expertly stirs Turkish, Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian (Near Eastern) folk idioms, endowing the band’s high-energy show with layers of complexity and dramatic depth.

Like Paul Klee “taking a line for a walk,” Sa’id traces a galloping, twisting melodic streak. He dashes forward at furious speeds, concocting dynamic solos that careen up and down the scale, alternately leading and following Souleyman’s vocal perambulations. Listen, for example, to the track “Hot Il Khanjar Bi Gleibi” (Stab My Heart) from Jazeera Nights (2010): Sa’id’s fingers wind obsessively throughout a single octave, conjuring a myriad of reed sounds. His other hand brandishes the bender wheel, adding trills, tremolos, and microtonal embellishments that humanize the synthesizer’s tone. Sa’id purposefully uses monophonic sounds, the kind generated by early electronic instruments—the theremin, the ondes Martenot, and analog synths. Such older instruments could produce only one pitch at a time, while modern synthesizers, by contrast, are capable of polyphony (many simultaneous tones). Vertical harmony is highly developed in Western music, so the polyphonic keyboard is king. By contrast, in traditional Arabic music, horizontal melody is paramount. Sa’id is clearly aware that monophonic synth sounds—which generated many famous pop solos, including those in the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm” and the Cars’ “Just What I Needed”—can more closely mirror the affect and colors of Arabic wind instruments: ney (flute), mijwiz (double clarinet), and zurna (oboe).

Sa’id therefore infuses his keyboard with a tuneful sensibility. The bender wheel allows him to emulate folk-inspired inflections, the flanger evokes an expressive special effect, and a specialized tuning incorporates the flatted second scale degree characteristic of specific Arabic maqamat (modes). Each maqam—composed of a specific set of prominent notes, typical melodic phrases, and specific boundaries—traditionally invokes a particular mood for Arab audiences. Because they employ microtones, eschewing the equal-tempered scales to which Westerners have become accustomed in recent centuries, maqamat sound foreign to an occidental ear. Yet Sa’id serves them up in a twenty-first-century vessel overflowing with infectious emotional intensity. In contrast to the self-consciously mechanistic synths of Depeche Mode or Lady Gaga, Sa’id’s Korg assumes a hybrid acoustic and electronic identity: electroacoustic.

Sa’id’s colleague Ali Shaker, meanwhile, launches the opposite process: electrifying his acoustic instrument. He takes similarly blazing solos on the bouzouki and baglama saz (fretted lute), employing generous helpings of delay (repeating sound ripples), compression (leveling of volume output), and reverb, with the goal of evincing a flatter, more even tone that melds with Sa’id’s preprogrammed electronic drums.

Acoustic mimics electronic, while electronic imitates acoustic. The mix is particularly seductive to contemporary listeners, yearning for a romanticized past while racing toward an encroaching future. It is a hypnotizing tug-of-war that compels you to seek meaning in metamorphosis; recognizable material undergoes a process that alters its context, and a new sound world blooms, reassuringly familiar yet tantalizingly foreign. It is you who retraces the wild lines sketched out by Sa’id, you who complete a transformation the musicians have set in motion, you whose awareness melds performer and audience, connecting the notes and, possibly, worlds.

Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel is Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.