Omar Souleyman: the Syrian wedding singer who is now his country’s greatest export
Thumping Arabic love songs have made Omar Souleyman an unlikely cult star. And no one is more surprised than he
Omar Souleyman was a prolific wedding singer with more than 500 live albums to his name before civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. As his country became increasingly unstable, Souleyman fled to Turkey, where he could no longer perform for couples tying the knot because of the language barrier. Yet he continued to write songs of love and positivity as a welcome distraction from the horrors of war, and in the process found himself something of a star in the West.
“When I started out as a wedding singer, I never thought I’d be able to sing outside Syria – especially for an audience that can’t understand the lyrics,” he says.
But that changed in 2007, when the US label Sublime Frequencies released Souleyman’s earlier recordings, and he developed a cult indie following, thanks in part to the riotously upbeat live show he has taken across Europe, Canada and Australia (whenever he can secure the visas).
It is a success for which he is grateful, but he is also slightly perplexed – understandably, as Souleyman doesn’t fit into any traditional Western pigeonholes. His thumping Arabic songs aren’t the kind of world music that normally gets played in the background at barbecues, and neither have they made their way onto the average 2am rave playlist.
In fact, his dizzying use of ululating keyboards, pounding synthesised beats and throaty vocals pays homage to dabke, a Middle Eastern line-dance synonymous with weddings and other celebrations. “They can feel the music and the rhythm of the songs,” he says of his Western audience, “and that fills me with pride. I’m so happy to be able to do this; few Arabic or Syrian singers have the opportunity to play festivals, or even perform outside the region.”
Lyrically, Souleyman’s music explores romance and companionship, themes he sticks to on his new album, Bahdeni Nami. Such universal messages help him to cope with the mounting troubles he sees whenever he returns home and sees President Bashar al-Assad’s government losing control to Islamic State. “I don’t feel bad or bothered about the way I often sing about love,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I’m speaking about my personal love. I’m including the audience, the wider world. It’s not just about lovers, or love in one specific context. It’s a general understanding of love.”
You can hear this on Bahdeni Nami’s eight-minute title track, which roughly translates as Sleep in My Arms. It ripples through verses about loving a woman, feeling it in your heart when she looks at you, and wanting her to drift off in your embrace. As on just about every uptempo Souleyman track, it is underpinned by claps, a thumping four-to-the-floor rhythm and a wildly fluttering keyboard line. Even for those who don’t understand Arabic, there is an infectious insistence to how the trilling keyboards wriggle around Souleyman’s voice. It is hard to resist the urge to wiggle your hips.
DJ and experimental electronic musician Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) produced the song, after Souleyman’s manager asked him to give an early version a polish. “They credited me as producer but I wasn’t involved in the recording at all,” Hebden says. “All I do with Omar is help capture his sound and get it mixed right. His music is already fully formed, and I wouldn’t want to get involved beyond that. I just want him to do his thing.”
Hebden has worked with Souleyman before; as producer, he helped transform the wedding singer’s sound from the stuff of bootlegged compilation tapes to the cleaner, critically lauded 2013 album Wenu Wenu, released on Domino Records' sub-label, Ribbon Music. Souleyman’s music has since moved from Ribbon to electronic music duo Modeselektor’s label, Monkeytown records. Gernot Bronsert, who runs the label with bandmate Sebastian Szary, found it important to position Souleyman as a dance music artist and not a maker of “world music”.
“I’m really into cultural exchanges, but the term ‘world music’ is something I really don’t want to use for Omar Souleyman because what he does is something more,” Bronsert says on the phone from Berlin. “It’s a cultural exchange, but on a sensitive and almost invisible level.”
When Souleyman grants an interview via Skype, he is in his hometown of Ras al-Ayn, Syria, near the Turkish border. Hours before our interview, he had been sitting in his garden, sipping coffee and chatting to his children. That, he says, is one of the activities he misses most, now that day-to-day life has become less stable. His voice grows quiet as he remembers the Syria he used to know.
“Of course,” he says, “if things return to normal and calm down in Syria, I’d go back to my wedding performances. They remind me of the old days, before the war, and they’re very important for my social life. Now my friends and family are spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Europe. It was good to see weddings bringing people together. If I could do them again, I would.”