Syrian Dabke Goes Global, Again

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The Sham Palace record label will release the compilation album "Sounds of the Syrian Houran" on June 19. (Source: Sham Palace - Mark Gergis)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Sunday, June 17, 2012

In 1997, Iraqi-American producer Mark Gergis first heard the music of Syria-born Omar Souleyman. The fast-paced dabke sound was emanating from a cassette kiosk in Damascus and Gergis, a self-described “archivist of international audio/visual culture,” took note.

A decade later, Souleyman – with Gergis at his side – would release his first stateside compilation album, Highway to Hassake, through Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies. To Western listeners, this was an introduction to “New Wave Dabke,” a term coined by Lebanese artist and musician Raed Yassin that described the growing use of electronic instruments in dabke music.

On June 19, Souleyman is poised to share the realm of “New Wave Dabke” in the West with Gergis’s latest release: Sounds of the Syrian Houran.

The compilation album from the year-old Sham Palace label features six tracks from Syria’s southwest Houran region, home to the towns of Deraa and Suwaida. The songs come from Gergis’s wunderkammer of music, a collection consisting of music selected from cassettes and CDs gathered during years of travel in the region.

The Houran compilation delivers on its promised mass of sensations: “labyrinthine synths, swirling sound effects, compelling vocals, and the shrill drone and buzz of the amplified mejwiz.” Yet the tracks from Ahmad al-Qasim, a well-known musician from Deraa, might be the highlights of the album. His "Love is not a joke" and "I will grieve until I see her again" explain why in a 2009 interview Qasim said that his sound has come to represent Hourani music in and outside Syria. As of late, Qasim has been vocal in his support of popular protests in Syria through messages and performances of Hourani songs broadcast on YouTube, but you wouldn’t glean this from Sham Palace packaging.

Far from capitalizing on some musicians’ relationships (or lack of) to the Syrian uprising, Gergis has avoided branding the album as anything other than good music; Sounds of the Syrian Houran is composed of mostly love songs. Gergis declined an interview due to the current situation in Syria, but in a 2010 email interview with the author he said, “Let's face it; by design, Syria has some very serious image problems. How do you think it would feel to be a young artistically inclined Syrian in Damascus today trying to battle the backward image the Western/Israeli media propagate and trying to vie for a voice of their own in a country riddled with internal strife?”

It might be an understatement to say that since the release of Souleyman’s first Western album in 2007 the images of Syria have become even more polarized in Western eyes. Yet all the while, Souleyman has toured the US and Europe several times, released five albums, and collaborated with Björk on her 2011 Crystalline release.

The Western crossover has produced some interesting particulars. For one, instead of continuing to collect the recordings of Souleyman’s performances at various celebrations in Syria, Sublime Frequencies began to make their own recordings. In 2011 the label released Haflat Gharbia (Western Concerts), a compilation of recordings of his Western tours between 2009 and 2011. It’s also interesting that in certain circles Souleyman is more likely to be associated with European music festivals or Björk than the dabke stomp that would typically accompany his music in his hometown of Ras al-Ayn in northeastern Syria.

Yet a sense of place might be less important in the global, or even regional, performances of dabke music. Professor of Ethnomusicology Shayna Silverstein noted that while most dabke singers pay homage to their region of origin, “These singers are like chameleons, they can be from any region,” observing that some of the more successful crossover musicians sing in the dialect of the country in which they’re performing. With Souleyman in particular, Silverstein said, “I think his success isn’t derived from that particular presentation of place, it’s more about the experience of listening to the music.”

In a summer 2012 article for Middle East Report, “Syria’s Radical Dabka,” Silverstein described how dabke has been the vehicle for divergent agendas, including what could be described as “state-sponsored cultural heritage.” More recently, dabke dance has manifested itself at popular demonstrations with local singers leading chants. The one element that seemed to be a constant with dabke dance and music was its association with celebration, but Silverstein noted that dabke is now being performed at funeral-protests. “The euphoria of collective movement emerges in the wake of trauma,” she wrote.

Considering the “chameleon” nature of dabke music and dance, it’s no surprise that Souleyman has been so successful with international audiences. Since this Syria dabke crossover to the West is still relatively new, questions will remain, like, which details are relevant in presenting Syrian dabke to Western audiences and which are superfluous? In the end, Syrian dabke musicians at home won’t need an album sheath to tell their stories.

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