OMAR SOULEYMAN @ THE ECHOPLEX
Photos by Stephanie Port Words by David Cotner
What can you say about a song that has words you can’t understand?
Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, bedecked in dark glasses and flowing vestments, red checked keffiyeh adorning his head, speaks through his music in this urgent moment during which an art that transcends current affairs and political boundaries is as moving as the beats that flow through the space like a thing alive. Possessed of a full, calm voice that soars above cares both temporary and abiding, Souleyman is aided by keyboard sorcerer Hasan Aso on two Korgs, cranking out simulations of drums and ouds and rhythms that pull from sources as wildly varied as traditional Syrian music, Eurodisco and electro. They play selections from the hundreds of records that make up the Souleyman back catalog, as well as hits from this year’s To Syria, With Love record on Mad Decent. It is not for nothing that Souleyman began his singing career in the early ’90s as a wedding singer – and what a pleasant change it is to see a singer moving so many people without once contorting his face or garroting his voice for emotional effect. The Echoplex was packed to the point where sweat and dancing almost become instruments unto themselves, suffused with that singular stink of sweat borne only from the rigors of ecstatic dancing. The quality of this music is so fine and revelatory that it brings together countless different audiences that are here as removed from Syrian culture as you are from the person writing these words.
It is, in its way, a deeply necessary performance.
It’s necessary in much the same way that the Bolshoi Ballet graced the U.S. at the height of the Cold War, or how the Buena Vista Social Club ventured forth from Communist Cuba in the ‘90s. The ecstatic and the diplomatic are a combination as rare as Omar Souleyman himself. Rarer still are performances like these that operate on multiple levels; it’s not enough to be just the drummer, or only the singer. Not anymore. Putting your music out in the world builds bridges as surely as any political directive or vested interest. Music was created to save the world – someone’s world, anyway – and in case you wondered what you might have missed tonight, it was the compelling, crucial and multidimensional presence of Omar Souleyman.
To understand what someone tells you because you’ve let the times in which you live translate for you is a moment of communion that transcends language itself.