Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

Popular Music

Great Albums You May Have Missed: Highway to Hassake - Omar Souleyman


Years ago, while training my mind to think about deep and important stuff at university, I used to puff up my self-importance by reading books with the word "postmodern" in the title. I still couldn't explain what the term means exactly without launching into an hour-long babble that would leave you more confused than before; but if I could sum it up in one musician, I'd pick a one Mr. Omar Souleyman.

Omar Souleyman delivers the sounds to the people in the streets of Syria; he "is a man of hospitality and striking integrity." Omar and his band cull hooks and rhythms from a variety of styles of music: Iraqi Choubi music, Arabic Mawal vocal techniques, Syrian Dabke, Turkish and Kurdish folk traditions, as well as the modern twist of incorporating electronic sythesizers. In fact I'm quite sure the synthesizer at times is meant to mimic the shrill exotic sounds of the pungi, used to charm snakes out of their wicker baskets on the streets of Kashmir. The result is one that I'm quite sure you will find utterly unique, but more importantly it's just groovy as all get out. Omar Souleyman is legendary among Syrian cassette-kiosk culture, having put out more than 500 cassettes since the band began in 1994. And if his early hit "Jani" doesn't get your feet tapping you might want to check and see if their nailed to the floor.

I'll let Omar make the rest of his case, because of further interest here is the label which was instrumental in bringing the sounds of Omar and his band to the west: Sublime Frequencies. Self-described as a "collective of explorers," Sublime Frequencies scours the globe for soulful music from a variety of cultures: music that may have slipped through the fingers of academic institutions as they attempt to constantly document culture in its myriad forms and artifacts. Often the types of music Sublime Frequencies highlight are pop-oriented, urban, or folk music that incorporates international influences: what the high-aiming cultural institutions of any given country might describe as "street" culture. When cultural institutions get involved in disseminating culture, in exchanging culture, this sort of street culture often gets overlooked when preference is put on culture considered to be respectable. But it is the culture of the street that often most accurately reflects the real feeling of everyday life of a city or region, as it's experienced on the ground. Before the sounds of the marketplace, the grooves of the urban go-go clubs, or even the staticky romance of a transistor radio show blaring through the streets slips completely into oblivion, Sublime Frequencies is on the scene to help insure the real soul of a people comes to light for the rest of the world.

Among the recordings from this label the library owns, one worthy of note is a collection of pop music from Myanmar (aka Burma) called Princess Nicotine. I simply can't imagine you've ever heard anything like it before. When Myanmar was colonized by the British, several instruments from the west were introduced into the country, as well as several stages of popular western music. Musicians on the Myanmar scene took those instruments and influences in, used them, adapted them, and without batting an eye adapted their music to include the hip sounds of western pop and rock without sacrificing a fraction, a FRACTION, of the originality of indigenous sensibilities and sound. "What the Burmese have done with a piano is so precise in its adaptation to existing form and melody that one would think they invented it." It's quite amazing, actually. If you enjoy hearing types of music you've never heard before, sounds that are so amazing you'll be surprised you haven't heard of it yet, do yourself a favor and check out Princess Nicotine.

To preview some songs by Omar Souleyman online, click here.

To preview a song off the Princess Nicotine CD online, click here.

NYPL Link For Omar Souleyman CDs:

NYPL Link For Princess Nicotine CD:

NYPL Links to other Sublime Frequencies CDs: