Western interpretations of the intricate music of the Middle East—tracks like Sting’s “Desert Rose” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”—tend to come across as the musical equivalents of ordering a “Moroccan” chicken salad at T.G.I. Friday’s: The inclusion of cumin and nutmeg in your meal doesn’t mean that it realistically reflects a foreign country’s flavors. To really get at the heart of the Middle East—in this case, Syria—you have to leave it up to a man who performs at weddings and parties, who knows his culture and how best to make an interpretation of its traditional music that audiences will embrace as an art form and not merely a gimmick. That man is Omar Souleyman.
A prolific performer with hundreds upon hundreds of albums (most of them created for the wedding parties and cassette stalls of his native Ra’s al-’Ayn), Souleyman is the premiere Syrian folk-pop artist. In the past two to three years, he’s been touted by everyone from Bjork (whose new track, “Crystalline,” he remixed), to Caribou, who selected Souleyman to play the Nightmare Before Christmas festival he curates in England. This international buzz led to Souleyman’s first tour outside of Syria, and those concerts in Europe, Australia and America comprise his most recent album, Haflat Gharbia (The Western Concerts).
The sound is like the funkiest M.I.A. track sped up about 10 times with lightning-fast oud riffs and dancehall beats. Put the nearly 10-minute “Gazula/Shift Al Mani [I Saw Her]” or “Mendel [I Don’t Know]” on at your next party. If your friends aren’t at the very least moving their heads, you need to get some new friends. Also stellar is the urgent, unrelenting “Haram [Forbidden: I Signal, You Deny],” a four-on-the-floor monster complete with party-ready yeahs—no wonder this man has become Syria’s must-have wedding performer. This is live music as it’s supposed to sound—vibrant, uniting, shaking with energy and joy.