Omar Souleyman: The Coolest Man in the Universe
How Omar Souleyman went from a wedding singer in Syria to the biggest star in the Middle East to American experimental music's most unlikely crossover.
Photo by Jess Lehrman
When I meet Omar Souleyman at his agent's apartment in the most horrifically gentrified part of Williamsburg, he looks like he's walked right out of the Bedouin deserts of Greater Syria. His classic Arab appearance—his chain-smoking, bushy mustache, keffiyeh, and thob (the caricature of Arabness to the Western eye)—is less of an Oriental wonder and more a comforting reminder of my time in the Middle East. I greet him in Arabic, and we speak to each other about his fame in the Arab world, and how my Arabic teachers have all mentioned him at one time or another. He speaks slowly, articulating so I can understand his Arabic—it sort of feels like we're conducting an interview in a language instructional video. He's patient with me, smiling with a cigarette in his mouth when I misspeak, allowing for me to correct myself.
The first time I heard his warped desert tunes was in the back of a cab in Jordan, and they were played constantly when I lived in a cement hut with Bedouins in the northern deserts of the country, an area similar to Souleyman's hometown of Ras Al-Ayn. I couldn't figure out what instrument could produce the sound that Souleyman sings over, and it was only until I looked up the countless grainy videos of his live performances that I realized it was just a Yamaha keyboard played really fucking fast. Paired with echoe-y yells of "Yallah!" and filtered through a shitty video recorder, Souleyman's sound accidentally found itself blurring the lines between folk, experimental, and prog music.
Omar Souleyman found international fame after being picked up by the Seattle-based world music label Sublime Frequencies in 2006, but he's been a legend in his homeland, Syria, and its neighboring countries for nearly twenty years. Souleyman has been singing traditional dabke songs since he was seven years old, but it wasn't until 1994 that he headlined his first concert (that's code for "wedding performance" in Syria). His frenetic wedding songs quickly launched him to Arab stardom.
Souleyman's ubiquity came through the prolific amount of his wedding performances, which were more often than not recorded on VHS tapes and given to the bride and groom, copied in great numbers, and distributed to dusty music stores throughout the region. It's rumored that he's made more than 500 such tapes. "After the first wedding that I sang in, more people approached me to sing in another," he says. "This kept going until I realized I didn't have any more free time in a week or a month or a year. I knew I was becoming famous after the first five or so weddings I sang at."
His unique brand of dabke sounds completely alien to Western ears, but that isn't just by virtue of it being from the ~exotic deserts of Arabia~. Normal dabke doesn't sound like Omar's dabke. He's mixed in the Iraqi style of Choubi music with Kurdish lyricism, and plays it all on warp speed: "The area where I live is a triangle—there's Turkish people, Christians, and Kurds. I used to sing in every one of these areas. They all play their own style of traditional music, so I used to sing in their style when I went to play there. I used to mimic the way that they sang," he says. "I used to mimic the way that they sang their style of folklore and added it to my own style."
Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet produced Souleyman's latest album, Wenu Wenu, and although the combination might seem unlikely, it's not the first time he's collaborated with artists more likely heard in a bar in Brooklyn than a hookah spot in Damascus. Bjork and Gorillaz have also reached out to Souleyman in the past. When I ask about working with artists like Four Tet and Bjork, he shrugs. "You know. It's work." His favorite artist to collaborate with? "My keyboard player."
Souleyman answers each question from behind his sunglasses in between drags of his ever-lit cigarette. It's his coolness and ease juxtaposed against the wild undulations of his music that makes Souleyman so intriguing. The way he sits in that Williamsburg apartment, perched upon a Swedish white couch with his keffiyeh, interviewed by one sentient pair of skinny jeans after, is a perfect metaphor for his relationship with his American audience. He continues to act and perform as if he were still in a wedding hall in the deserts of North Syria, even when he's on a stage at CMJ in front of a crowd of drunk alt kids.
I ask him what kind of Western music he likes. He responds for the first time in English instead of Arabic: "Slow. I like anything slow."
Meher Ahmad works on VICE's HBO show. She's on Twitter - @_meher