In Conversation with Omar Souleyman
Written by James Zaremba on 30th January 2019
500+ albums…and counting.
Few artists can stake claim to a back-catalogue that expands beyond double figures, Omar Souleyman has surpassed this five-fold. Dubbed the “Syrian Wedding Singer”, Souleyman has racked up a deep body of recordings since his career began in the early 90s. Performing across his home country as the nation’s most famous wedding performer, much of his work has been recorded live and later sold at street side kiosks from Ra’s al-‘Ayn to Damascus.
Today, Souleyman tours the world, performing as far away as Australia and as close to home as Liverpool’s 24 Kitchen Street. In 2006, the singer’s music broke out of Syria in a big way and over the past decade, Souleyman has found a new and receptive audience on the world stage working alongside a swathe of highly-regarded labels the likes of Sublime Frequencies, Ribbon and Mad Decent. His powerful vocal performances, the synth-driven sound of his accompanying keyboardist Hasan Jamo Alo and the charismatic music videos that accompany his extended releases have all made him a firm favourite live act at electronic music festivals the likes of Nuits Sonores, Field Day and Womad.
His 2017 release, To Syria, With Love was arguably Souleyman’s most personal recording to date. An ode to his homeland from abroad, he is an artist currently living in quasi-exile over the border in neighbouring Turkey. From here, he continues to tour the world stage through everything from festival appearances to intimate capacity gigs.
He comes to 24 Kitchen Street for his debut Liverpool performance on Friday 23rd February.
Having worked alongside Four Tet, Bjork, Legowelt, Modeselektor and Gilles Peterson – in addition to receiving remix treatment from DJ Seinfeld and Simian Mobile Disco – it’s evident that the world of electronic music has taken Souleyman’s music to heart.
It’s a far flung shift from that of Tell Tamer, Souleyman’s hometown, where he took a career U-turn from farmer to singer around age 30: “I started singing at weddings little by little in the 1990s. First I would get 10- minute slots here and there and later on I was one of the main singers at those weddings and parties. Music and singing has always been around me – in our home, in our village, everywhere. I’ve been singing and listening since early on in life!”
A melting-pot of Kurdish, Ashuri and Arabic cultures, the diversity of Souleyman’s audiences led him to incorporate a kaleidoscope of sounds into his music: “Different people have always been living together in my part of the world and I had to sing at everyone’s party – so of course I had to adopt.”
Often likened to the “dabke” style of Levant, Souleyman was part of a revolution that turned hand drums and reed flutes into Korg keyboards and drum machines: “I am not sure at all why people write that I only have dabke music. I sing in many different styles but dabke is a musical style and it does feature in my music a lot. The music in our region started with keyboards in the 1990s. We have all sorts of dabkes – they come with the region and tribe.”
His 2016 Boiler Room at Convergence Festival and archive Glastonbury 2011 footage prove that Souleyman has a keen understanding of how to get (and keep) his audiences moving. Whether he’s an artist already on your radar, or somebody whose set you’ve stumbled into at a festival…it’s not likely you’d leave in a hurry: “Most of my concerts are big dance parties – no matter where we go. It is the same of course when I perform at weddings – I am the same person – however people might dance differently and interact differently during a wedding and during a concert.
2017 saw Souleyman team up with an unlikely partner in Diplo. In an eyebrow raising label/artist partnership, his signing to EDM label Mad Decent was described to Crack Mag by A&R boss Paul Devro as: “The quickest email I’ve ever responded to!” Taking Arabic music to the American masses is undoubtedly a ballsy move from one of the country’s biggest electronic music labels.
However, a quick look into Souleyman’s history of rich collaborations and the team-up isn’t quite as surprising. His debut studio album, which dropped in 2013 on Ribbon Music saw Souleyman match with Four Tet. Touching on his work alongside the British electronic music legend, Souleyman explains that: “Keiran (Four Tet) worked on my album back in 2013 as an engineer and mixing engineer. He was with us in the studio and he understood my music well and gave it a great sound that I always wanted to have from a record. He did not do more than necessary but just enough. I am very thankful to him – it was an important moment for me and I think he also enjoyed the process.”
This level of admiration for Souleyman’s music is seen across the spectrum, from his live performances, to the labels and artists that are clambering to work alongside him. The future looks exciting for Souleyman, he tells us that he has a new album on the way and will continue to tour the world.
Remaining one of his nation’s most globally recognised musicians whilst living in quasi-excile must pose a strange dichotomy for Souleyman. He is celebrated for offering the world a portal into a sound and style of music that we didn’t know we needed yet his roots and heritage remain geographically inaccessible to most. When asked about the ongoing civil war in his homeland, Souleyman offers no response. Perhaps, all that needs to be heard and understood can be found within his music. For now, it’s clear that Omar Souleyman will continue to release music and relentlessly tour the world, spreading a sound and a culture that otherwise may well be enveloped in a broader narrative of war and violence.
Catch Omar Souleyman perform live at 24 Kitchen Street on Friday 23rd February for his debut Liverpool performance.