Omar Souleyman @ Scala
King’s Cross Scala. 17may10.
Call me superficial if you like, but my understanding and desire to witness Omar Souleyman was largely based on his enigmatic appearance, on a poster seen during his last UK tour, in 2009. The fact that his London shows are promoted by the Upset The Rhythm folks sealed the deal that it was probably worth checking out on his return. His actual sound though? No idea. I imagined though, judging a book by its cover, a kind of dusty folk-rock, kind of in the Tinariwen mould.
What I hadn’t expected was dance floor scenes that couldn’t have been more rave if a giant yellow smiley had been rolled onto the back of the stage and the head-scarfed Syrian gentleman in the middle of it had started squealing “ACIIIIIEEEEEED’ and blowing a neon whistle.
Not that there wasn’t similar punctuating intonations in each tune, yer ‘yallah’s and ‘aaaaahhhhyyyyy’s, regular as clockwork. Indeed, a great deal of Souleyman’s time was spent with the microphone tucked under his arm as he geed the crowd with soft ‘come with me’ gestures, fingertip-led hand-claps or genial waves.
You’ll appreciate; this is all pretty incongruous behaviour from a middle aged chap looking like a cross between Scatman John’s desert-dwelling cousin and a prototype mould for a Middle Eastern version of the joke shop Groucho Marx kit, yet all the more beguiling for its eccentricity.
Turns out the Souleyman set consists of a variety of musical styles from Syrian Dabke to Iraqi Choubi, and since his debut in 1994, he and his group have issued over 500 studio and live cassette albums in Syria. On this form, you can understand the demand for it.
For when the hard beats kick in over Rizan Sa’id’s chaotic dual-keyboard playing; when one of the bands associates removes his suit jacket to take centre-stage and, like a quiet and reserved uncle startling his family at a wedding, begins to gradually work up a slinky sweat; when Ali Shaker barrels out notes on the electric saz as though doing so whilst falling down a staircase; and when Omar takes time out from low-key cheerleading to fire out the poetry, it’s virtually impossible not to be exhilarated by their projected joie de vivre.
library pic by Crimson Glow Photography found on Sublime Frequencies label website