There are many things that mark Omar Souleyman out from other singers – part of these are due to his music, the others are mainly down to his unusual past.
Starting out as a wedding singer in Syria in 1994, it was two years later that he met and started working with long term collaborator Rizan Sa’id who was playing in a local Kurdish combo at the time. It marked the beginning of a collaboration that would see them add a propulsive electronic element to the traditional acoustic form of Arabic dance music called Dabke – a combination that would see the music become harder, faster and, important for what was to later come, louder.
Playing at weddings was a theme that would long continue, and their performances at these nuptials were often recorded and kept by the bride and groom as a memento of the day. Sometimes the recordings would later surface on cassettes in the markets in and around the north eastern part of the country, something which later led to over 500 recordings being made available for purchase – more recently it has become not uncommon for copies of these early clips to wash up on Youtube.
Yet despite becoming a household name in Syria, it wasn’t until eight years after Souleyman and Sa’id began working together that they started to be recognised by people from further afield and the West. Some of the duo’s work appeared on 2004’s ‘I Remember Syria’, a compilation of field recordings made by Mark Gergis, which were later released through the American label Sublime Frequencies, huge supporters of Souleyman and traditional Middle Eastern and North African music in general.
Today, praised by Björk and Damon Albarn, with whom he’s also collaborated, Omar Souleyman sits on festival bills amongst the hip and new and mostly Western; his pitchy, celebratory Syrian dance music matched by no one in terms of authenticity. Yet nothing quite marks Souleyman’s arrival on the Western alt. music scene like ‘Wenu Wenu’. Released this month via Domino, officially speaking it’s his debut album, produced by Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet.
Souleyman doesn’t give too many interviews but with the aid of his translator, Karoulin Kanj, he gave us these words.
Omar Souleyman on the beginning…
“It started when I was a child, everyone encouraged me – family, friends, everyone encouraged me. In 1994, it became a bit more professional and soon after that I became well known, that was how it started.”
… playing weddings
“It comes from the tradition of the region that I come from and it is something that happens throughout the whole year – summer, winter, anytime that people want. The recording that takes place during the wedding is something that is ordered by either the family of the bride or the groom asks if they can record it. Later, I got some press and became known because of that – that’s why there is a lot of wedding recordings.”
… adding new elements to traditional music
“The kind of music that I present is based on traditional music and has been known for more than ten years now. Adding the electronic element to the traditional music has helped to make it more popular; the audience are happy with it – it’s moved the audience. It’s made them react in a different way to how they used to react to it before; it’s a positive reaction, the audience like it and I like it. The audience like a different mingling.”
… the importance of collaboration
“It’s always good to work and collaborate with other artists. Working with an artist that is so well known as Björk or with other artists is something that I would wish to do again. Working with other artists does both sides good.”
… the long lasting popularity of cassette tapes
“In our region they still use the cassette; they still use the word and the actual cassette. It’s the most common format – everyone uses it. When you put something on cassette it is definite.
“The CD is still not common. With the advent of the Internet and the popularity of TV, people are starting to know what a CD is and what an album is – it is something that is still working its way around the region, but only some people are aware and it is why the use of the cassette is still ingrained in our culture.”
… Four Tet
“It was down to my manager Mina that made the connection happen. It was perfect; there was harmony from both parties from the beginning. The recording process was excellent. The results at first, even the voice of the vocals, was good. It was an ideal collaboration.
“Before arriving, I hadn’t met Kieran before – my only hearing of him was through Mina. I didn’t expect anything when I went into the studio; everything was new to me. Afterwards, when the album was finished and I heard it, everyone was saying they liked it, and I instantly knew I was working with a really professional person.”
… playing to Western audiences
“In the beginning it was hard for me to play in front of a Western audience. I was used to playing weddings and in front of audiences who knew the languages that I use in my songs. Afterwards, as things progressed, it became natural to me. The Western audience does not understand what I am signing about, the words are alien to them, they do not understand – it is harder, they move to the music and to the rhythm, they react.
“Either at home in Syria or in other places where I sing and where they understand me it is different; they can identify with both the words and the music. For me now, the only two differences between the audiences is the language.”
… difficulties of playing abroad
“The main problems usually come when something goes wrong with a keyboard. There is always technical problems that crop up with electrical equipment, but it is soon fixed. Sometimes a Visa issue may occur when I travel and it happened with the last tour for entry into Sweden, but normally there is no problem, it was just on that one.”
“My music is known in Syria by most of the traditional singers. There are singers that sing in the same style and who usually take my work and copy it, but I don’t feel bad about this or the success that they may have, as they all know that they’re copying me.”