Omar Souleyman: The global appeal of a Syrian wedding singer

Friday 10/07/2015
Omar Souleyman at Perth International Arts Festival 2011.

Washington - Berlin-based electronic music label Monkeytown Records is known for techno acts such as the German duo Modesele­ktor but one of its newest artists, Omar Souleyman, certainly does not fit that description.

Souleyman, a middle-aged wed­ding singer from the north-eastern Syrian town of Tal Tamr, has slow­ly brought Levantine dabke music to American and European ears with the help of electronic musi­cians such as Modeselektor and Four Tet, as well as Seattle’s Sub­lime Frequencies records.

His first studio album, Wenu Wenu, was released by Ribbon Mu­sic in 2013 and his second effort, Bahdeni Nami, has a July 28th re­lease scheduled. While these are his first studio albums, to say so is somewhat misleading about his body of work; Souleyman has re­portedly recorded more than 500 tapes, mostly live performances at weddings in Syria.

Souleyman’s template, dabke, is a traditional folk music and dance of Levantine Arab cultures. Syrian dabke typically features relentless male vocals, long instrumental passages performed on mizwij — a traditional reed clarinet — and beats that are appealing to Western ears due to their similarity with electronic music.

But Souleyman’s dabke is far from traditional. Souleyman may walk on stage in jalabiya and keffi­yeh, but his band replaces the miz­wij with synthesised sounds from a Yamaha keyboard. And instead of tablah drums, Souleyman’s band taps out beats on electronic drum pads, instrumentation that is fa­miliar to electronic music fans.

Some refer to the more elec­tronic dabke music of recent years as “New Wave dabke“, a version of the traditional genre infused by globalisation. In addition to modern instrumentation, Souley­man also incorporates elements of Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi mu­sic heard in the north-eastern re­gion of Syria. The final product is a culturally hybrid form of Syrian dabke.

But those who have seen Souley­man at his numerous performances at European and North American music festivals probably know little of this. In the last few years Souley­man has performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris, the famous English music festival Glastonbury and the trend-setting CMJ Show­case in New York.

For an Arab-language performer, let alone a Syrian wedding singer, to perform on these stages is unheard of. Arab musicians have found pop­ularity before with North American audiences but not in the same way. Renowned Lebanese singer Fair­uz, for example, had many fans in North America but mostly among Arab diaspora communities. Other musicians, such as Oum Kalthoum, are universally respect­ed but generally by those fa­miliar with Middle East­ern or world music.

Souleyman has found a different niche — neither Arab Americans nor listen­ers well-versed in world music. Instead, he appeals to trendy, young hipsters and electronic music fans.

Sublime Frequencies, which released four com­pilations of his work, in­troduced Souleyman to North American audiences in 2007. Sublime Frequen­cies is self-described as “a collective of explorers dedi­cated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers”. Souleyman’s first releases, including Dabke 2020, Jazeera Nights and Highway to Has­sake, all featured previously re­corded tracks or live recordings.

In 2013 Souleyman released Wenu Wenu, his first studio album. Produced by English musician Ki­eran Hebden — known by his stage name Four Tet — Wenu Wenu made inroads with electronic fans. Oth­er than an improved production quality, Wenu Wenu faithfully pre­served the sound that Souleyman had spent years perfecting.

Souleyman’s forthcoming album features more collaborations with Hebden, including the title-track, Bahdeni Nami.

The album also features collabo­rations with German duo Mode­selektor, BBC Radio Six DJ Gilles Peterson, and a remix by Cole Al­exander of the Atlanta-based ga­rage rock band Black Lips. Bahdeni Nami, however, was not recorded in a Brooklyn studio but in Istan­bul and still features long-time collaborators Khaled Youssef on the oud-like saz and Rizan Sa’id on keyboards, as well as poet and lyri­cist Ahmad Alsamer. The conflict in Syria has affected Souleyman and his family, forcing him to relocate to Turkey. Yet, the war has never become central to his music. As Monkeytown Records puts it, “De­spite the world’s insistence to asso­ciate him with his home country’s unending war, Omar gives back nothing but love.” And this “love”, rather than the novelty of listening to a musician from a war-ravaged state, seems to be central to his pop­ularity abroad. Still, exactly why Souleyman has earned such a fol­lowing among hip North American and European musicians and fans is unclear. Modeselektor, curators of Monkeytown Records, offered its own explanation in a statement on Souleyman’s signing with the label: “They say that we, Modeselektor, play at an awful lot of parties. Omar Souleyman has sung at a very, very large number of parties — wedding parties. We reckon that fits!”