Wednesday night was for dancing at the Empty Bottle. As Omar Souleyman took the stage, it was amazing (but not necessarily surprising) how minimal the set up was: two keyboards, two people, one microphone. Behind both keyboards was Souleyman’s collaborator Mahmoud Harbi, who absent-mindedly twiddled a mystic intro as Souleyman made his way through an eager crowd to the stage. There before me was a short man with a confident stride, clad in a floor-length black didashah, a red and white keffiyeh, dark sunglasses and a glorious mustache. This was the man who brought the party.
I was in the front row, with my back against an undulating crowd of sweaty, dancing teenagers, all letting loose with bright smiles from ear to ear. I could sense the odd dynamic between the crowd and Souleyman. The strangeness was palpable, but it was only the kind of strangeness that comes with dunking your chicken nuggets in honey, or mixing all the sodas at the fountain — weird, but satisfying.
The beat was loud, fast and undeniably infectious. Much credit goes to Souleyman, whose warbling vocals led the house down a path of untethered joy. More credit, however, should go to his bandmate Mahmoud Harbi, who I couldn’t keep my eyes off of for 90 percent of every song. Harbi, armed with two keyboards and a drum pad, managed to whip his hands back and forth between the full range of his setup, creating all entirety of Souleyman’s sonic environment in real time. All of the fugue-like playing you hear on Souleyman’s records — that’s all coming from a single man using a simple sampler and his own two hands. In the low light of the Empty Bottle stage, with one hand on the keys and the other on the pitch knob, Harbi’s hands blurred into a ridiculously virtuosic hot mess, adjusting tone and voice on the fly.
I did, however, get bored.
It makes sense, I suppose. Souleyman’s long-shining star is just now rising. 2007 saw Souleyman’s Western world debut, 2009 and 2010 reviews from Pitchfork saw Souleyman’s albums receiving 7.4 and 7.8 ratings, respectively, and 2011 saw Souleyman performing at Glastonbury and Fun Fun Fun Fest, as well as remixing tracks from Bjork’s newest album.
But that’s only in the last four years. Souleyman and Harbi have been performing since 1994 — at weddings.
I don’t have anything against wedding bands, but I’m not sure how well it translates to live shows (that aren’t dance club-based). With such a minimal setup and a fairly homogenous-sounding set, Souleyman’s night on stage started looking towards a retro, non-ironic, mystical karaoke night. The night was filled with the joys of an active dancefloor, but not necessarily with the treat of an actively engaged act on stage. Sadly, Souleyman’s brand of high-energy dabke, was strong at first as a splash of an contagious new beat for the Empty Bottle, but eventually that novelty faded away.