Interview: Omar Souleyman

Chris Nickson

By Chris Nickson

on 10.10.11 in Interviews

On the map of Syria, a slim finger of land extends to the northeast. This is Hassake, the country’s breadbasket, a land of plenty where the countryside is fertile and dominated by farms. Deep in Hassake, out near the fingertip, lies Jazeera, a region of small towns and villages that stand closer to Iraq and Turkey than the country’s capital, Damascus, 12 hours away by road. It’s a world away from the huge crowds of Glastonbury festival or Central Park Summerstage. But Jazeera is home to Omar Souleyman, the wedding singer who’s played those major events and lit up audiences all over the world with his modern techno take on traditional Arabic dabke music. And Jazeera is his heart, where his family is settled, a place where “we have all sorts of things growing; it’s a very green area.”

Omar Souleyman is a Middle Eastern superstar. Go to any market there and the stalls are packed with his cassettes, well over 500 of them, most recorded live at the wedding parties that remain his bread and butter, then quickly copied and circulated.

“I started singing in 1994 at small parties,” he explains through a translator while on tour in Belgium. “After two years I started to become a bit famous, so it was very fast building. I think I became popular because of the style of the music. It draws on elements from different areas around me, from Iraqi and Turkish music, and the different types of folklore in the area.”

That initial fame came from what he did to the musical tradition. He didn’t just modernize it; he turned it inside out. Far from being sedate, he made it raucous and modern, with Omar’s raspy, shouted vocals sitting on top of Rizan Sa’id’s keyboards and percussion loops and the electric saz (a kind of lute) work of Ali Shaker. It was iconoclastic in a world that revered the past, a shocking refraction of tradition that became the music of the young for the young. What started out as a more formal band changed quickly as “the keyboard replaced most of the live instruments, so it was just keyboard and sax, as it’s been for years now.”

Souleyman’s Syrian fame grew, albeit not without the disapproving shake of older heads. But the big breakout arrived when Mark Gergis, head of the Sublime Frequencies label, discovered the new sounds on a trip to Syria. He released a compilation of Souleyman’s studio work, Highway to Hassake, in 2007. Word spread about the Syrian with the beats, and a YouTube clip of the song “Leh Jani,” by then an old piece the band no longer performed, became a viral hit.

From there came the Western concert tours, and then the imprimatur of artistic success when the enigmatic Bjork (who’d also discovered him on YouTube) asked Omar to rework “Crystalline” off her new album, Biophilia. It was a request that came out of the blue.

“I didn’t know anything about her,” Souleyman says. “We only listen to Arabic music, and we didn’t even listen to her until we’d done the remixes. She wanted us to add her music to ours, and that’s what the three of us did. We liked the colours of her sounds, so it was good to do, but we like the rest of her music that we’ve heard, too.”

These days, after 17 years of constantly playing together everywhere from village weddings to massive stages, Omar, Rizan and Ali are a tight unit. Their music is continually evolving, according to Sa’id, who observes that “the development in the music is all down to technology. When new keyboard sounds are introduced they become a part of our sounds, so it all develops as the technology develops.” Old songs are discarded, and new ones introduced, but always based on dabke and the Arabic street pop known as cha’abi. And the speed of composition is breathtaking by Western standards.

“We’ll write music, like a new song for a wedding, right on the day we’re going to play it,” Sa’id says. “In the studio it’s a bit different. We make one studio album a year. I might come up with a riff, then the poet will write the lyrics and we’ll record it the next day. It’s a very fast process.”

The song lyrics come from a pool of poets whose work Omar likes. One in particular, Mahmoud Harbi, has become a constant, brooding, chain-smoking presence at the side of the stage wherever the band plays, favoured, Souleyman says, because “he’ll improvise on the spot, he can come up with lyrics very easily. I’ll take him with me when I play at weddings. Speed is very important when it comes to lyrics. He’s very fast and he can write well about all types of emotions. But I’ll work with anyone who’s good. The other poets are good in the studio but they usually take a day or two to come up with their lyrics.”

Although Souleyman enjoys studio work, the real heart of what he does is those live performances, getting the crowd dancing — and that’s something Omar always manages. He’s noticed, though, that once they’re on their feet, “the main difference seems to be in how people dance. In Syria a dance can last three or four hours, much longer than a concert in the West. They dance the dabke, a traditional, folkloric dance. They hold hands as they dance, men and women, boys and girls together, but in the West people dance alone. There’s much more energy to the way people dance in the West, though.”

West and East: these days Souleyman has become a man of two worlds; he’s still learning how to find a level between them both. Once the tour is over, “I’ll be going home. I’ve plenty of gigs in Syria. I had to move them back. I couldn’t do them before because of these commitments in Europe. So I guess it’s a balance between the two parts of my life.” And he’s thinking toward the future, of ways to develop the music.

“I’m always busy,” he says finally. “As soon as this tour finishes I’d like to experiment with drums. When I go back to Syria I listen to the new sounds, keyboard sounds. The important elements will always be the keyboard, saz and drums. But dabke is our style and that won’t change.”

With thanks to Rasha Shaheen for translation.