Omar Souleyman

Highway to Hassake: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria

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With cassettes by the hundreds in shops all over Syria, Omar Souleyman qualifies as a cultural phenomenon. Highway to Hassake is his first Western release. The album was compiled by Sublime Frequencies' Mark Gergis from cassettes recorded between 1996 and 2006. Most tracks were recorded for release straight from the mixing board at live events, making for often less-than-ideal sound quality. However, the performances are generally spirited enough to make up for the sonic flaws. Souleyman is quite the performer, no doubt about that. His rich, flexible voice has bite in frantic numbers (mostly in dabke style, typical Syrian party music) and a lot of soul in ataba songs (a mournful style). Among his other influences are Iraqi choubi (a style already chronicled by the label on the CD Choubi Choubi) and Turkish pop music. Omar is also surrounded by highly talented musicians, including oud players Hamid Souleyman and Ali Shakir, and keyboardist Rizan Sa'id, whose lightning-fast solos can put Rick Wakeman to shame. Highlights include the pumping "Leh Jani" and "Dabke 2001," along with both versions of "Atabat," which together illustrate how Souleyman can build seemingly endless variations over simple themes. Followers of this particular record label are already used to setting sound quality aside in exchange for discovering street-level folk and pop music from abroad, and those people will have no problem getting into Highway to Hassake.

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