It's true that Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman scored his first hit in Syria -- Jani -- in 1996, and in 2005 Khataba cemented his high-profile reputation for quality in the trans-Arab world (with some 600 live and studio albums via cassette released between the two). That said, it was the 2007 studio album Highway to Hassake on Sublime Frequencies that introduced Souleyman's new wave of dabke music to Western and English-speaking audiences. Dabke is the folk form for wedding and dance party music from Syria; Souleyman updated the sound into something both timeless and furiously futuristic with the aid of multi-instrumentalist and keyboardist Rizan Sa'id and electric saz player Ali Shaker. Critical success followed that record all over the world, and it was followed in 2009 by Dabke 2020 and in 2010 by the excellent Jazeera Nights, also on Sublime Frequencies. However, the frenetic live sound of Souleyman was only available in the Middle East or in American cities with large Middle Eastern populations. Until now. Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts documents Souleyman and his band's tours through Europe, Australia, and the United States between 2009 and 2011. Despite the greatness of the studio albums, an entire piece of the puzzle has been missing for residents of the West. Sa'id is able to make his wildly modified keyboards and samplers capture the sounds of the ney, violin, and numerous percussion instruments, while Shaker's electric saz is as expertly played as any guitar virtuoso's axe. Its amplified sound resembles a dead cross between a Fender Stratocaster and a sitar. In addition to these two, poet Zuhir Maksi literally stands close to Souleyman on-stage and whispers poetry or prose (both traditional and modern) into his ear. The singer transforms this in real time into a wailing live vocalization that is pure lightning-bolt energy, wailing with abandon atop the numerous rhythms, harmonies, and melodies being played with nonstop kinetic musical fire behind him. While there isn't a weak cut on this nine-song, hourlong set, there are highlights, including "Haram [Forbidden -- I Signal, You Deny]," with its layered rhythms and call and response between keys and saz; the trancelike 11-minute stomper "Gazula/Shift Al Mani [I Saw Her]"; and the mournful -- though no less quaking -- "Wakhali [Empty]." Halfat Gharbia is among the finest live albums of the 21st century thus far and a side of Souleyman that his fans will crave in the future.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek