Review: Omar Souleyman @ Koko (London, 16th March 2016)

Sometimes you can’t believe your eyes. It’s hard to explain how certain musical styles can cross physical and cultural borders and spread around the world. For instance, Omar Souleyman’s performance at Camden’s Koko (part of Convergence Festival) was just such an experience, bringing together one-thousand five-hundred people to dance for an hour to traditional Syrian electro-dabké tunes.

Koko wasn’t simply packed, but throbbing and pulsating with bass and excitement. Over the last five years spent calling the shots at wedding parties Omar Souleyman has fine-tuned his folkloric MCing, transforming it into global hits and sought-after shows. When his gigs are announced people come running to sell out the venues, where they go wild with dancing until they are exhausted.

In reality, Omar Souleyman’s secret is hard to explain. The Middle Eastern vocalist hasn’t modified his look or stage presence and made a decision not to adapt his style to the expectation of Western audiences. Nevertheless, European and American electro fans have fallen over backwards to get to his minimalistic stage shows. All Omar needs is three simple arm and hand moves to fire everyone up, and with those three moves he kept Koko alight.

Supported by Clap! Clap! and Simbiosi, and joined onstage by his trusty keyboard player Rizan Sa’id, the Syrian artist received pop star treatment. Despite the wide popularity of the first two acts, people thronged to the stage specially for him and his exotic bass-pumping tunes. Even though it’s more than five years since Omar started performing he could be considered the quintessential anti-star. He spent the performance hidden behind his sunglasses, chequered keffiyeh and one-piece robe, strolling around the stage while distributing a few basic words to cheer his fans like “marhabaa”, “hello”, “shukran” and “thanks”. But every time he raised his arms or waved his hands, Koko’s crowd went wild.

The combination of addictive bass lines, the repetitive and entrancing voice, ornate and flowing Middle Eastern melodies – not to mention the hype surrounding Omar’s figure – worked as unstoppable trigger. Then, the vibes of “Wenu Wenu”, “Warni Warni” and “Shift Al Mani” did the rest, converting Koko into a Syrian wedding party at which everyone in the audience was invited.

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