I was hoping for cross-cultural pandemonium at the Paradise's double-bill of Dengue Fever and Omar Souleyman, and the two-hour show left me mostly satisfied. Here were breakdancers and line-dancers from a decent contingent of Cambodian homies and a couple of ringers in keffiyehs mixing it up with the usual crowd of white indie-rockers, hipsters, and old-guard musos. Although, truth be told, it was a little hard to tell what exactly was going on culturally in Souleyman's half of the show.
>> PHOTOS: Dengue Fever and Omar Souleyman at the Paradise <<
To catch you up: Dengue Fever are a California quartet of Americans fronted by a Cambodian singer, singing mostly in Khmer. Souleyman is a Syrian singing in Arabic and Kurdish, backed by a keyboardist with programmed beats and samples.
Dengue Fever have been through town a couple of times now (the show I remember was a wild MFA summer concert from a couple of years ago). There's some getting used to the high-pitched vocals and odd scales of singer Chhom Nimol over psych and surf rock with plenty of Farfisa and guitar tremolo thrown into the mix. But there was no denying the propulsive beats with tasty, detailed cross-rhythms from drummer Paul Dreux Smith and uninflected hard punk bass by Senon Gaius Williams. This was satisfying verse-chorus rock, with occasional bilingual call-and-response vocals between Nimol and guitarist Zac Holtzman. The band routinely broke out into choreographed pogoing while Nimol maintained her dignity, in a beautiful patterned silk mini-dress, often illustrating her lyrics with the hyper-extended hand gestures common to South Asian court dance. Nimol also shares the band's sense of humor, evident in a love song about a long distance relationship between New York and Pnomh Penh. The Cambodian kids up front went nuts, and their moves spread through the crowd.
Souleyman is a whole other deal. As a keyboardist at center stage cued drones and percussion, the voice boomed in from off-stage. Then the big disco beat kicked in and Souleyman emerged in red-and-white checkered keffiyeh, shades, and a floor-length dark tunic. His singing and shouts were stentorian, the beats punishing, and laced with a barrage of ouds, musettes, and hand drums. Souleyman walked back and forth on stage, singing, gesturing lightly with his hands, or clapping. He occasionally flashed a thin smile under his mustache. His big stage move was to twirl a strand of worry beads.
But dancing was general — line dances, circle dances, break dances. At one point, a kid who had been at the heart of the melee — in full white thawb gown and keffiyeh — broke from the crowd, ran to the back of the room, and puked. A woman danced by, her face completely veiled by a keffiyeh, but wearing a black tank-top and cheetah patterned short shorts, mid-riff exposed. By the end of the show, she was on stage with another woman, her headdress now wrapped around her hips, shimmying wildly.
Is this stuff allowed? What's more, Souleyman is from Syria. But, not a word of politics. Or of much else. His keyboard man, meanwhile, in jeans and white T-shirt, remained expressionless behind his double-stacked Korg. People sang along. Young folks danced. Hipsters and oldsters looked on.