Syrian pop star Omar Souleyman has reportedly released over 500 albums on tape cassettes over his fifteen-year career. A lot of those are live albums, but it’s a prolific output nonetheless, even if estimates are off by a few hundred.

‘Jazeera Nights’ is his third western release, compiled once again by Sublime Frequencies – the Washington-based label that deals exclusively in super limited runs of Middle Eastern and South East Asian party music. And having opened our arms first to the western appropriation of African music via Vampire Weekend, and then Fools Gold, to later dip our toes into the pool of Amadou And Miriam, there’s no reason why ‘Jazeera Nights’, in a mock-free, Borat-less 2010, can’t be Souleyman’s first palpable ‘hit’ in the western world. What stands in his way, other than the limits of such a small indie release, is that his frantic Arabic jams quickly merge into one, rhythmically repetitive annoyance. In short, you can have too much Omar.

Before realising this, though, tracks like ‘Hafer Gabrak Bidi’ (translated: ‘I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands’) firmly defend Souleyman’s reign as the master of street-level dabke (Syrian folkloric dance music), by stomping to an urban bass beat more funky than anything you’ll hear setting the mood in your local Lebanese restaurant. (Give it a few months and it’ll probably be given the Panjabi MC treatment and set to the Knight Rider theme tune).

The same microtonal keyboards that inspired Rainbow Arabia to tackle Middle Eastern pop excitedly pipe over the top, manically slivering over the following ‘Ala ll Hanash Madgouga’ (‘The Bedouin Tattoo’) and the remaining seven tracks here (although are toned down to fleeting for the slower groove of ‘Labji Wa Bajji II Hajar’) undoubtedly play their part in making Souleyman seem samey to a fault.

A similar note was widely made when Omar’s last CD was compiled, with the counter argument that trance music, to the untrained ear, all sounds the same (much like how old people say that they can’t tell the difference between pop singers anymore). It’s certainly a valid point, but then how will we begin to pick up the subtleties in Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic music if we get three releases every fifteen years?

Souleyman, then – thanks to ‘Jazeera Nights’ in particular, which brought the singer to Europe for the first time last month to play the Pavement-curated ATP amongst other shows – will either be considered a culture-spreading pioneer or a man who, even after fifteen years of making music, charged too soon, only to let whoever follows take the credit after we’ve been suitably buttered up. And yet, above criticism is ‘Jazeera Nights’’ real-ness. It’s completely untarnished by the west and for that reason – while quickly tedious to many – it is an education in a music culture we have little excuse to know little about.

By Danny Canter

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