Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Omar Souleyman

  • Highway to Hassake [Sublime Frequencies, 2007] A-
  • Dabke 2020 [Sublime Frequencies, 2009] **
  • Jazeera Nights [Sublime Frequencies, 2010] ***
  • Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts [Hydra Head, 2011] A-
  • Wenu Wenu [Ribbon, 2013]
  • To Syria, With Love [Mad Decent, 2017] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Highway to Hassake [Sublime Frequencies, 2007]
Souleyman's four Sublime Frequencies albums are similar enough to confuse the lay listener, especially one wary of letting backstory get in the way of the music itself. I tell myself I prefer 2011's Haflat Gharbia because it cherrypicks the non-Syrian performances of a shrewd guy who was by then a world traveler, but I'll never know for sure because it's also the first one I heard, an accident that can sway anyone's judgment. After many tries, I'm pretty sure this is my number two, so I was pleased to learn that it was the first best-of Mark Gergis sorted out for him. I'll also point out that although I fell for the breakneck pace of Haflat Gharbia, here the slow stuff is a respite. Since the subtitle is "Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria," it would seem possible that the slow equals the folk. But Gergis's useful notes make no such distinction. A-

Dabke 2020 [Sublime Frequencies, 2009]
Arguably his most intense record, yet also arguably his most wearying and even sometimes dullest--the death-metal effect ("La Sidounak Sayyada," "Lansab Sherek") **

Jazeera Nights [Sublime Frequencies, 2010]
Studio-recorded before he'd refined his crowd-pleasing wiles in the world marketplace, this dabke for dummies lacks a subtle but crucial quantum of give ("Hafer Bidi Gabrak [I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands]," "Hot Il Khanjar Bi Gleibi [Stab My Heart]") ***

Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts [Hydra Head, 2011]
I don't know how I missed this guy, but though maybe his three earlier compilation-style albums on Sublime Frequencies render this one redundant, I doubt it--played blind, it grabbed me by the what-the? from the moment track two speeded things up and didn't quit till the end of track nine an hour and change later. A Syrian not to be confused with the Egyptian placeholder president of approximately the same name, Souleyman is a local wedding singer turned world-music attraction playing a supposedly dumbed-down, synthed-up, hickoid-metal variant of a major Levantine pop style called, how loosely or precisely I know not, dabke. Recorded in such exotic locales as Berlin, Melbourne, Philadelphia, and Kortrijk, Belgium, this delivers the kind of intensity Lester Bangs craved and almost got when he tore the shrink-wrap off the Count Five's Cartesian Jetstream. And don't nitpick--Lester couldn't understand the lyrics either. A-

Wenu Wenu [Ribbon, 2013]
[2013 Dean's List: 59]

To Syria, With Love [Mad Decent, 2017]
In a way it's simple and in a way it's anything but. The simple part is that if you like rhythmically intense music that's spare and huge and human-scale all at once, you have to hear this intransigently masculine Syrian exile: call-and-response between his imploring baritone and oud lines adapted to baritone synth (over percussion aplenty, you bet). If you're impressed, as you will be, buy an album, why not? Moreover, you might as well start with this one, which has Diplo's label behind it the way 2013's Wenu Wenu had Kieran Hebden's. The not-simple part comes if you've already got your Souleyman album--Wenu Wenu itself, or the live Haflat Garbia, say. This one's more . . . I don't know, these differentiations are so marginal, focused or measured. Also, the Arabic lyrics you'll need a booklet to parse yearn on two occasions for his lost homeland rather than some metaphorical woman. But if you already own two of his albums, I doubt you need a third. B+

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