Album Review : Mohammad Syfkhan –‘I Am Kurdish’ : Bouzouki driven song and dance soul- music which makes a mighty impression.

The Breakdown

Mohammad Syfkhan is much more than an interpreter, ‘I Am Kurdish’ is an album powered by his own distinctive voice. The poetry of movement seems everywhere, from the bouncing beats to the twisting weave of his rootsy vocal with those silky bouzouki runs.
Nyahh Records 8.8

Singer/ bouzouki player Mohammad Syfkhan’s bio underlines the fact that some back stories are more important than others. His journey to the release of his debut solo album ‘I Am Kurdish’ on Nyahh Records, while clearly fuelling his joyous North African electric dance sounds, has significance that extends far beyond music.

Syfkhan began playing the bouzouki during the early eighties while at medical college in Aleppo, the north-western Syrian city. Once qualified as a nurse, he moved back to Raqqa, his adopted home, started a family and also found time to set up his own group, the Al-Rabie Band. Success and popularity followed, with the band increasingly in demand to play weddings, parties, festivals and concerts. In1986 the first Al-Rabie Band album was released in Syria, marking a long period when the group maintained their popularity while Mohammad also continued nursing as a day job.

Everything changed with the cataclysmic outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Personal tragedy struck when one of Mohammad Syfkhan’s sons was killed by ISIS militants as they seized control of Kurdish districts in the region. Under continual threat the family had no other option but to flee their homeland and in 2015 left to seek safety in Europe. Three of Mohammad’s sons were resettled in Germany while he found himself along with his daughter and wife, further west, temporarily housed in a holiday camp near Dublin.

Since that time the family have secured council housing for themselves and begun on the path to relative stability and security. All the while, Mohammad’s music making has been a key contributor to their putting down new roots, so ever since arriving in Ireland he’s been playing for community events, parties and wedding celebrations. It was at one such event in Carrack-on-Shannon that he met Leitrim musician, film maker and Nyahh Records founder to be, Willie Stewart who was DJing for the day. Mohammad volunteered to play for the crowd, Stewart hooked him up through the PA and so started the strong connection that brings us to the release of the ‘I Am Kurdish’ album five years or so later.

Taking inspiration and material from across the Middle-East, North Africa and Mediterranean Europe rather than sticking to Turkish/Kurdish sources, he embraces everything from dabke folk, rai, even euro-pop, with feeling and flare. But what’s obvious from this recording is that Mohammad Syfkhan is much more than an interpreter, ‘I Am Kurdish’ is an album powered by his own distinctive voice.

His bouzouki playing, all coiling melodies, gliding shreds and emotional drive, is obviously a crucial component. So it fits that the first sounds to speak out from the grooves are the poised trills from Syfkhan’s buzuq, tempting you into the swirling uplift of Do You Have A Lover Or Not ? As his drum machine kicks in, with that hypnotic boom-chocking tick, you know that you’re here to dance in whatever way you want. It’s like the first rush of catching Omar Souleyman’s intoxicating electro except here the poetry of movement seems everywhere, from the bouncing beats to the twisting weave of Syfkhan’s rootsy vocal with those silky bouzouki runs.

A vintage Kurdish tune of unknown origin, Put The Coffee In The Glass, provides a similar rhythmic kick but with Syfkhan’s more restrained vocals adding complexity as they plead sombrely. It’s that same weathered croon which brings a questioning edge to the pacey thwack of I Adore These Eyes and shows his knack of covering the ground without labouring the point. Mohammad Syfkhan can make his mark in 3 minutes 30 seconds and yes, this is punchy pop music. The title track I Am Kurdish also underlines his artful grasp of the connection between economy and impact. A song written by Syfkhan with a harder edge and rock dynamics, it swells with pride and hope before fading sharply. Perhaps the wind down is wise, anticipating the song’s full force when stretched out in the live setting.

Mohammad Syfkhan’s natural musicality gets highlighted further in the tracks recorded with composer/cellist Eimear Ready and Cathal Roche on saxophone. His arrangements of the songs featuring the three of them shows a sensitivity and sense of purpose. They develop rather than deviate from the essential Syfkhan sound. The filmic, breeze blown lament Wasted Years dips and swoops as the sax, cello and reverberating bouzouki glide close. Here the blistering finger tapped drum track plus a distorted, arcing solo from Syfkhan all add to the drama. The traditional Do Not Bow becomes equally expansive and entwined as the trio sway through a long introduction building to a killer vocal entry from Mohammad…you will shiver.

Perhaps it’s the version of the Egyptian classic One Thousand And One Nights, penned by Baligh Hamdi and covered by the immortal diva Umm Kulthum in the sixties, that stands out, most not because of its provenance but for the fresh flavours that get delivered by Syfkhan and friends. Through the shadows of a sultry Mushtaq and Terry Hall skank, the cello, sax and bouzouki twist around the melodies with the giddy, free flow of a gentle reel. There’s something open and improvisational about it all, the flutter of bodrum beats and hints of a slow Irish air, mingle with the middle eastern melodrama.

‘I Am Kurdish’ is some introduction to Mohammad Syfkhan’s vibrant music which through his persistence, chance meetings and the support of Willie Stewart (at Nyahh) plus the Lankum gang (who he opened for in Cork last year) is at last getting a wider listen. As the closing notes of the pulsing Laylim Ley disappear you sense there is much more to come from Syfkhan but at the moment this is the sound of where he has been, where he is now and where he is going.

Get your copy of ‘I Am Kurdish’ by Mohammad Syfkhan from your local record store or direct from Nyahh Records HERE

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  1. […] Well the line-up that Birmingham’s mighty Supersonic Festival assembled last year for its 20th anniversary was awe inspiring and then came this announcement for 2024. Yes the bill is a slayer, a statement of intent to celebrate the vitality of underground music, a wish list that any leftfield listener would find hard to imagine.But it is happening right in the beating heart of the city, from 30th August to 1st September. There you’ll encounter: alt-folk legend and indie music polymath Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy; the stunning performance art of electronic musician and darkwave chanteuse Gazelle Twin; the deepest sad core of Emma Ruth Rundle looking back on her cathartic 2014 debut ‘Some Heavy Ocean’; and intense doom expressionism that is The Body & Dis Fig’s new collaboration, a partnership that really takes heavy music forward (see the recent Backseat Mafia Review).That’s just the starters. You’ll pick up from the flyer that today’s folk music boundary breakers have a real presence on the line up: alt balladeer John Francis Flynn; Brìghde Chaimbeul ‘s experimental soundscapes conjured from the Celtic pipes; and harpist Mary Latimore with her intricate, tactile compositions. Lankum also return to the festival, represented in two intriguing new combos, Radie Peat as part of four-piece ØXN and Ian Lynch in the guise of One Leg One Eye.Supersonic wouldn’t be Supersonic without connection to its metal roots, so step up Melt Bananna, Agriculture, The None, Upchuck and The Shits. Plus, as always, inventive sounds from a global beats perspective will be heard as part of the Supersonic communion with hip hop futurists MC Yallah x Debmaster ,Indonesian industrial fusionists Senyawa and recently discovered gem, singer and bouzouki player Mohammad Syfkhan (reviewed this month in BSM). […]

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