Photography: Amin Musa / @aminmusaphoto

Omar Souleyman

24 Kitchen Street 23/2/19

Postponing a gig can prove disastrous for attendance levels, but nobody is deterred by tonight’s show being rearranged for three weeks after the original date. Kitchen Street is rammed and bouncing well before OMAR SOULEYMAN takes to the stage. A party atmosphere grips the crowd from the off as Jacques Malchance smashes out a pounding dabke beat.

Dabke can be translated as ‘stamping the feet’, a line or circle dance traditionally performed at weddings. A Levantine hoedown of sorts, a celebration. “Their weddings sound like more fun than ours,” says a smiling punter before weaving his way into the jumping mass of bodies.

On his more recent albums, Souleyman has replaced the traditional accompanying instruments of oud, mijwiz and tablah with electronic keyboards and contemporary, crunching basslines and percussion played at breakneck speed. That’s not to say he’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The vocal stylings utilising both Arabic and Kurdish are centuries old and much of the keyboard accompaniments are based on traditional Arabic patterns; the stuff of the wedding songs for which he originally became famous in his homeland.

In truth, if there wasn’t a slight pause in proceedings I wouldn’t have known that Souleyman had begun his set, such is the (to my uneducated ears, perhaps) indistinguishable transition from DJ set to live set. Souleyman’s keyboard player takes to the stage and sets the scene before the man himself appears, dressed in his trademark keffiyeh and sunglasses.

Souleyman constantly on the move, pacing the stage, hands outstretched towards his adoring audience, is a somewhat puzzling phenomenon. As Gabriel Szatan states in Crack Magazine, he is “greatly respected by some and not taken entirely seriously by others”, and there is something in the crowd’s reaction that supports this. There is a slightly amused/bemused vibe among some of the revellers; a couple jovially video his shoes, glimpsed occasionally beneath the swirl of his kaftan, while at the same time wildly excited admirers are being told to get down from the stage barricade. The crowd are dancing all the way to the back of the room, grinning from ear to ear, feet stamping, hands clapping.

Souleyman’s latest album, To Syria, With Love, tackles the current political situation in that country through a series of personal, heartfelt odes expressing his hopes and fears for his homeland. However, there is little sense of soul searching among this audience, who seem all too ready to embrace the positive, vibrant link to their own homeland that Souleyman’s musical conduit provides.

The intensity of the beats is unwavering, the keys adding swirling Euro-disco synth effects to the patterns riffing on traditional themes, the handclaps riding over the mix. Souleyman’s chanted, staccato delivery entices a series of call and answer responses from the crowd, and those hands not holding aloft mobile phones are stretched over the barrier towards him in adoration.

At the back of the room dancers gather in a circle, hands linked, swirling around a series of individuals who take turns to show off their flashy steps. The evening really does have the feeling of an extended family celebration.

It’s a unique take on a primordial traditional, and it’s earned Omar Souleyman international acclaim. Here, through him, we are surrounded everywhere by smiles and joyous laughter.

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