Saturday, March 26, 2011



There has rarely been a more diverse and uniformly excited crowd than that squeezed into a very sold-out Northcote Social Club tonight. Anticipation is expressed through spontaneous cheering, near-constant clapping and the occasional honk of a Mega Blast (a vuvuzela-like hand horn), and it’s all very warrented. From the moment the red curtains part and the initial disappointment that we will not be treated to a band, but rather a dexterous synthesizer player/electronic percussionist Rizan Sa’id, subsides, it is a night like nothing else.

Dressed in his red and white checkered keffiyeh, dark circular glasses and light green, smartly trimmed thobe, Omar Souleyman looks as relaxed as a man with a 500 album back catalog would be, as he paces back and forth across the stage. With a long history as a wedding entertainer in his native Syria, Souleyman is clearly no longer adored only in the Middle East as his performance here elicits adoration most acts would happily retire on. Known by most for his three albums on the Sublime Frequencies label, it’s clear Souleyman hasn’t changed his shtick one iota. He tucks his mic in his armpit, claps and motions for the already excited crowd to get up and get involved, which he never needs to do because we already are. Still, when a man with his sense of authority gestures minimally, the effect is huge and appreciation is expressed even more ardently.

Simply hearing musicians use scales that don’t follow standard intervals is a welcome change. The combination of ceaselessly spiraling, slightly nasal-sounding Arabic scales, brittle steel-drum percussion and a rapid, pounding 4/4 bass drum interspersed with Souleyman’s echo-laden voice is a powerful one. ‘Eeeer-yah!’ he chants again and again in various songs after brief synth flourishes and pitch-bend heavy instrumental break from the po-faced Sa’id. We cheer back with cries of ‘Omar!’ and ‘Habibi!’, raised wrists twisting, feet stamping and copious blasts from plastic horns all of which melds into the song perfectly. The fluidity of the rhythms, the quavering of the notes and the space Souleyman’s voice generates is intoxicating. Over the course of the gig Souleyman smiles more and more, as stage invaders wielding filming iPhones circle dance, stuff money in his pocket and occasionally kiss his hand. This is not your standard show and it’s a glorious example of the power of charisma and the variety of ways in which positivity can be made and music can feel totally fresh again.

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