In recent years Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman has captured the imagination of the west via his high-energy electronic dabke music released initially on Sublime Frequencies and more recently on Monkeytown and Ribbon Music. His music, whilst possessing strong links to the traditional folkloric music of Jazeera, his geographical region, near Syria’s border with Iraq and Turkey populated by Arabs and Kurds, has proven especially popular in the west due to its predominantly electronic nature, drawing loose parallels to dance and techno music.
It’s exotic, frantic and infectious, distinctively Arabic flavoured techno music over which Souleyman weaves his tales of love and revs up the crowd. Souleyman though it turns out has a not so secret weapon, the man responsible for these incredible sounds, synth player and fellow Syrian Rizan Said. If you’ve ever seen Souleyman live (as we have a few times in Australia) then you’ve more than likely marvelled at Said’s remarkable ability to construct Souleyman’s complete sound, as within his synth is an entire Middle Eastern orchestra, and he is a maestro. In fact it seems so effortless in performance he often looks vaguely bored. Yet his electronic hand percussion in particular is unparalleled.
Last year Said released this solo album; King of Keyboard on the Beirut based Annihaya records and it’s now securing a vinyl release on London’s Discrepant label in September. It’s exactly what you would expect, synthetic Arabic music on amphetamines, a hyperactive frenzy of artificial reeds, triple time beats and intricate exotic melody lines. At times it’s even funky.
Said ran a studio in Syria before the war and wrote Korg synth patches that he sold across the region. He’s worked with numerous Syrian singers from the 90’s onwards – not just Souleyman. Whilst his music is centuries old, it’s traditional music updated for the digital age, and its impossible not to get swept up in it. Whilst bookended by gentle exploratory atmospheric pieces, the pace within is frenetic, a blitzkrieg of artificial hand drums and intricate interweaving melodies. It’s simultaneously cheeky and awe inspiring, as there is a quirky humour to not just some of the sounds he uses, but also how he uses them.
Whilst at times it borders on overwhelming, in terms of the tempo, its shear audacity and the precociousness of playing, you are unlikely to ever hear such a master instrumentalist granted the freedom to create such infectious, relentless exotic dancefloor tunes.