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29 f T


V soaps, dancing, glamour, good times, solid old-time values, the neighbourhood, truckers, taxi drivers, human frailty: welcome to modern Syria, welcome to life the world over. I find it frustrating that artists like Omar Souleyman generate so much guff in the circles of the learned about ‘the unknowable other’, legitimacy, cultural contextualism, tradition, modernity, misappropriation, this schism, that ism. The real wonder of someone like Omar Souleyman, and the place he comes from, isn’t how different or ‘other’ it is to the world we know, but how bloody similar it is, how universal funda- mental human tragedy and human farce really is. Musicians the world over share a common dream: to play the music they love to as many people as possible as often as possible. And who cares if their away audiences don’t ‘understand’ them, or speak their lan- guage, or aren’t conversant with 3000 years of their history, or haven’t read any ethnomusicological treatises about their tradi- tions and just content themselves with headbanging gracelessly to their music with the purest kind of appreciation in their hearts: simple wonder and love. As if some sorry youth in the barrios of Al Hassakeh needs to know anything at all about the history of Black America, the migration north from the rural south, the Detroit car industry, gospel music, slavery and all that jazz to appreciate Thriller by Michael Jackson. If you decide to delve deeper and explore the contexts of the music you love then good for you, but don’t lambast others for not spending their time in the same way.


I love Omar Souleyman’s music. Ok, I don’t know what he’s singing about and his lyrical talents might well be a joke for all I know. The fact that he regularly appears with a chain-smoking poet called Mahmoud Harbi who stands on stage whispering sweet prompts into Omar’s ear, Cyrano de Bergerac style, possibly con- firms this doubt. Suffice to say that the songs apparently stumble through a Technicolor landscape of beautiful wenches, dodgy wed- ding deals, adultery, love, hate, frustration, sexual or otherwise, and the occasional paean to Assad father and son. But like Gergis, like Björk, like Albarn and all those other trance-heads out there, I’m touched by the frenzy, the raw honesty of it all, the lack of pol- ish and restraint, the dazzling lamé virtuosity, the heart-wrenching mawwal intros and the pounding dabke fever. I love the fact that Omar Souleyman isn’t a spruced-up grinning entertainer, like Wafik Habib or Ali Al Dik, notwithstanding their possibly superior vocal skills. He’s a tough reserved biker boy from a hard place, like Gene Vincent, Dee Dee Ramone or Iggy Pop. And I don’t need to know a single solitary fact about him to appreciate that spirit in him.


And anybody who thinks that Sublime Frequencies are making


millions off the back of people like Omar Souleyman is a fool who doesn’t know the realities of that independent and passionate basement floor of the music industry which the label inhabits. I’d be surprised if they make enough to run an office, pay a few peo- ple a living wage and keep releasing the music they love. But I believe they’ve understood something fundamental, and it’s all about trust and faith. The truth is that many western music labels and producers who seek out talent in continents other than their own have lost their faith in the ability of local people to produce music of quality, worth and international potential themselves, in situ. Apparently, they had that ability some time ago, in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s when stunning gorgeous music was recorded by local musicians, engineers and producers in local studios in places like the Congo, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, South Africa etc. etc. But that ability was garrotted, so the theory goes, by piracy, shrinking production budgets and the Darwinian obliteration of ‘real’ instru- ments by cheap keyboards and synths.


There’s some truth in that, no doubt, but it ignores the fact that modernity is a creative challenge the world over, and Africans, Arabs, Asians and others must rise to it just as we in the west have had to. And if part of that necessary reinterpretation of older music requires somebody like Rizan to sit down in their home studio in some forgotten burgh in the outer reaches of an African, Asian or Middle Eastern country and tinkle on a Korg synth and a drum machine until something raw, vital and butt-kicking begins to appear, then producers in the west need to have some kind of faith in that process, or a curiosity at least. Sublime Frequencies seems to have that faith, and that’s why they deserve respect.


And in any case, one should never dismiss trash, however you define it. High art needs trash in order to boost its energy levels. Shakespeare, Dickens, Bartok and Joyce all understood that very well. Like the guys from Sublime Frequencies, I’m constantly sur- prised by the energy and quality of invention of the music on cheap and tacky cassettes, with zero production values, which I find in the souks of the world. We’ve got to trust the people who make that music and trust their way of making it, people like Omar, Rizan and Ali Shaker. Maybe they need a little more rope, a few hours in bet- ter studios and mastering rooms, the use of slightly better gear. But essentially they’re doing their thing, stumbling forward into a dan- gerous future, like the rest of us, and we should be listening. F


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