It was Arabic music that drew what might have been this year’s most diverse crowd at any New York concert. Maybe it’s a stretch to credit Syrian crooner Omar Souleyman for uniting these people, but he definitely brought them together at his sold-out show last night booked by the World Music Institute at the Poisson Rouge.
The wannabe Republican operative leaning against the back wall of the club was bitching to his fiancee about how Donald Trump’s latest misadventures in reality tv-style management might bolster Democratic hopes in the 2018 midterm elections. Neither his fiancee nor her petite friend had much to say in response. Soon after, a mustachioed dark-skinned man arrived and whisked the fiancee’s friend off to the dance floor.
A few feet away, a lesbian couple twirled and whispered sweet nothings to each other in Arabic. Around the corner by the bar, a couple of preciously scruffy Bushwick boys in matching belly shirts did much the same, next to a posse of German tourists chugging shots and beers. Appearances can be deceiving, but the Arabic-speaking contingent seemed to be outnumbered at least three to one.
Souleyman took the stage to thunderous applause, rocking his signature kaffiyeh and desert shades and proceeded to glide back and forth across the stage, engaging the audience in one clapalong after another, for at least half of his roughly fifty-minute set. By the midpoint, he’d loosened up some. His voice haggard from constant touring, he took frequent breathers and left it to his supersonically fast keyboardist – who was the star of this show – to fill in the gaps. Although the duo had help – a pretty much relentless EDM thump-thump along with lots of synthy atmospherics emanating from a vintage analog mixing desk – most of the music seemed live. Resolute and focused behind his Hasan microtonal keyboard, the guy played Flight of the Bumblebee, or its Arabic counterpart, in hijaz mode for pretty much the duration of the set. This feat was made doubly difficult because of the split-second precision required to stay in sync with the relentless click track.
For all the good vibes and the endless sea of dancers clapping along and making videos, Souleyman’s music is very much attuned to the here and now. After a suspenseful snakecharmer of an introductory taqsim, he launched into Chobi (Longing for Home), a standout track from his forthcoming album To Syria With Love, his distantly imploring baritone rasp set to machinegunning volleys of synthesized violin and flute patches. Souleyman worked more suspense later in the show with a long jam on the cheating anthem Kayan, another track from the forthcoming album, with all sorts of call-and-response between vocals and keys. He didn’t talk to the audience much, although his shout-outs to his home turf in Al-Jazira, Syria – which he hasn’t visited in six years – drew ferociously assertive applause. Is it any wonder that the Trump Administration wants to keep this kind of inclusive musical cross-pollination out of the country?
By the end of the show, the Bushwick boys had disappeared into the crowd of dancers. A tall Asian man stumbled from the melee and clung to a nonplussed music writer to avoid collapsing on the floor. The tall dude’s companion, a pretty woman in her 20s, made it clear that she was sick of him overdoing it. The Republican operative was all by himself in the back of the club: the bath salts had kicked in by now, and he was still swaying, eyes rolled back in his head, even though the music had stopped.
On the way out, there was no Souleyman vinyl for sale, but there was a big crowd milling around the World Music Institute table, everybody signing up for their email list. The WMI’s next show is tonight at 7:30 at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway, with the great Indian sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan, son of the legendary Vilayat Khan. Tix are as low as $15, a real bargain, and are still available as of this hour.