This Is Your Brain on Omar: Interview with Mark Gergis
(Evil Monito, May 2010)
I first learned about Omar Souleyman through friends of Mark Gergis. Once they told me about “Leh Jani”, the YouTube video dance hit from the album Highway, I became obsessed, and I’m not the only one. The video has gotten more than half a million hits. The song barrels into a call-and-response between an overdriven, high-pitched keyboard line and Souleyman’s reedy voice and trills. It’s berserk and giddy, as though it will spin out of control. In the video montage, Souleyman, cool in dark sunglasses, a leather jacket, and a red-and-white checked keffiyeh, is showered with money by female dabke dancers. My brain on Omar: I’ve played the video repeatedly, like a rat on crack. One time I even let my son’s oatmeal burn. I’ll neglect my parenting duties to hear Omar’s voice.
Ever gotten obsessed about a song? I mean really obsessed — beyond writing lyrics on your body with a Sharpie or stalking the singer on Facebook? Well, reconsider your definition. In This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin explains the effect of charismatic singers. If the voice has a magnetic, empathetic quality, it will speak openly, transparently, as if the listener has a mainline into the singer’s emotional state. It doesn’t matter if the singer has had professional training; the voice’s expressiveness has an elusive quality, and it’s addictive to the listener. Every time we hear the song again, our neurons try to reboot the same emotions evoked the first time we heard it. Our dopamine levels work on overdrive. This hormonal effect drives rare, adventurous people – like Mark Gergis, for example – to travel thousands of miles to befriend the singer – Omar Souleyman in this case – behind the song.
Mark Gergis is an Oakland, CA-based musician who performs as Porest, and is also a filmmaker, DJ, and musical entrepreneur (tour manager/record producer/contributor to the indie label Sublime Frequencies). Gergis travels frequently to Southeast Asia and the Middle East in pursuit of music beyond what’s packaged neatly for Starbucks customers. In 1997, during a visit to Damascus, he heard one man’s voice stand out from others’ blaring from the speakers of street stalls: Omar Souleyman’s. Gergis brought back many of the man’s cassettes, ranging from brash, polyrhythmic dabke music to lyrical folk songs, to share with his friends; he returned to Syria in 2000, collecting more tapes. Six years later, Gergis tracked down Omar with basic sleuthing persistence – asking someone at a Kurdish cassette store for the phone number of someone who knew someone who knew Omar. Souleyman, by then a star in Syria, agreed to meet Gergis and his traveling companion in Hassake, Omar’s hometown, near the Iraqi border. To our collective good fortune, Souleyman also agreed to have Sublime Frequencies release a compilation of tracks, Highway to Hassake.
Photo Credit: Mark Gergis
Since Sublime Frequencies began in 2003, Gergis has contributed many releases compiled of music from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including Coubi Choubi! Folk & Pop Songs from Iraq and Shadow Music from Thailand. With each release come liner notes explaining the history of the music and the musicians, guiding us beyond a superficial knowledge of a region or musical culture. It’s all part of an act of diplomacy more persuasive than most, because music affects the primitive and advanced parts of our brain. Mark Gergis wants Omar and his music to broaden our understanding of a part of the world often stereotyped in the media by fear mongers.
Last spring, Gergis helped organize a UK and Europe tour for Souleyman and another Sublime Frequencies band, Group Doueh from the western Sahara; he is now finishing another Souleyman release for that place of birth and finalizing plans for a three-month Souleyman tour of Europe, the States and Canada, which is set to begin in May 2010. (Details at www.sublimefrequencies.com.) EM spoke with Mark Gergis about Omar Souleyman’s music and his more recent experience working with the musician himself.
EM: What was it about Omar’s songs that made you seek him out, as opposed to other singers?
I’ve been asked that question by Syrians as well. They are sometimes confused by my choice, as there are many Syrian dabke singers producing music and playing weddings and concerts. Many of these singers are slicksters with highly glossed images and a lot of pomp and redundancy. After collecting and listening to hundreds of them, I deduced that while there are similar acts in the country, none really matches the distinct character of the Omar sound. His longtime collaboration with Rizan Sa’id, the Kurdish keyboard player, has yielded some of the rawest and most urgent-sounding examples of new wave dabke I’ve heard, and it definitely stands apart from others, to me. Omar’s voice is unique as well, whether he’s singing or MC-ing, there’s a rugged beauty to it that is genuine and very likeable.