Omar Souleyman: To Syria, with love

Aug 1, 2017 - Artist Stories

In his recent video for “Ya Bnayya,” Omar Souleyman’s career comes full circle. Clad in his trademark black sunglasses and red-and-white keffiyeh, and accompanied by the dazzlingly fast drum fills and trance-inducing riffs of his keyboardist Hasan Alo, Souleyman entertains a spirited wedding celebration. It’s a return to the roots for the Syrian-born singer, who long before appearances at events such as Glastonbury, Bonnaroo and Pitchfork Music Festival Paris got his start entertaining at nuptials across Syria. “Of course I still play weddings,” Souleyman explains to YouTube through a translator. “Any time I have free time and there is an invitation I can honor, I do it.”

In this case, he could hardly say no: The wedding happens to be that of his oldest son, Maher.

The documentary-style video was filmed in Turkey, where Souleyman has lived for the past six years, and serves as a fascinating glimpse into a part of the world that many of the video’s viewers have never seen. But then, a wedding singer’s job is all about bringing people together, so perhaps it makes sense that Souleyman has emerged as one of Syria’s most prominent cultural ambassadors.

Souleyman is a performer of shaabi, a largely rural, mostly working-class style of Middle Eastern popular music with limited exposure outside the region. But with nearly 40 million views across the platform, the Syrian singer has helped to spread the sound to a whole new audience.

Souleyman’s musical journey has been anything but conventional. For many years, the only recordings of his music were cassettes recorded live at his wedding gigs and sold in shops across Syria. It was only in 2007, when the globetrotting label Sublime Frequencies collected highlights from his cassette catalog as Highway to Hassake: Folk & Pop Sounds of Syria that listeners outside the region became aware of his work. It’s easy to see why his recordings struck such a chord: his frequent four-to-the-floor rhythms aren’t all that far removed from western dance music styles like techno, and his resolutely synthetic textures—steely claps, buzzing leads, dubby chord stabs—feel like long-lost siblings of the sounds that have thrilled electronic music fans for decades.

Soon, Souleyman and his lightning-fingered keyboard player were routinely filling dance floors at festivals across Europe and North America, which led to collaborations with a surprising cast of western electronic musicians. In 2011 he remixed Björk’s “Crystalline,” “Tesla” and “Mawal,” reworking the Icelandic singer’s icy electronic sounds as tumbling Middle Eastern shaabi—a short video on Björk’s artist page captures Souleyman and his colleagues working on the remixes in the studio, offering a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes. Electronic veteran Four Tet, aka Kieran Hebden, produced Souleyman’s 2013 album Wenu Wenu, yielding the thrilling breakout single “Warni Warni.” Two years later, Souleyman linked up with Modeselektor’s Monkeytown label to release Bahdeni Nami, which featured collaborations with dance music icons like Four Tet, Gilles Peterson, and Modeselektor themselves. And this year, Souleyman joined none other than Diplo’s Mad Decent label, bringing his quick-stepping tempos and unstoppable energy to the king of the turn-up—an unlikely alliance, perhaps, but also one that makes sense, given Diplo’s longstanding interest in dance music subcultures around the world.

Released in June on Mad Decent, To Syria With Love, was made with the inhabitants of his war-torn native country in mind—“all of them, without exception,” Souleyman stresses, describing the records as “a gift from my heart to the people of Syria.”

But Caribou’s Dan Snaith, who invited Souleyman to perform at the ATP Nightmare Before Christmas festival he co-curated in 2011, believes that the Syrian singer’s music has just as much to offer listeners who aren’t from the region. “Omar Souleyman's music is a prime example of how the music and culture of one country of part of the world can speak to everyone, everywhere,” Snaith says. “If you've ever seen him perform, you know that his energy and intensity are irresistible. The fact that the current political climate is one in which cultural dialogue like this—particularly with Syrians—so often gets shut down only makes his music that much more potent.”

Four Tet’s Hebden agrees. “Omar’s music is so joyous and positive, as well as being musically exciting,” he says. “And due to the low exposure that Middle Eastern music gets in Europe and North America, I think it’s quite important that he has made such an effort to share his music on a worldwide scale.”

And YouTube turns out to be the perfect medium to share his music globally. “I certainly would not be where I am if it were not for YouTube,” Souleyman explains. In fact, it was via YouTube that Björk discovered his music in the first place, the Icelandic musician told NPR in 2009; that chance encounter set in motion their eventual collaboration on her “Crystalline” remixes project. Unlike Björk’s deeply conceptual visuals, however, Souleyman’s videos typically present him in his preferred milieu: holding court at exuberant wedding parties. “Leh Jani”—viewed more than two million times, the 2002 video was one of the first to introduce Souleyman to the outside world—stitches together camcorder footage into a lo-fi montage of pure feeling. The video for 2015’s “Bahdeni Nami” (more than two million views) gets behind the wheel with Souleyman and follows him through the towns and rural landscapes of the Turkish region he calls home.

One of the most moving videos of Souleyman, however, takes place in a very different context: the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, where he was invited to sing in 2013. “It was an honor, of course,” he says. “I had only four minutes and it was televised, so it was a bit stressful, because I do not have four-minute songs.” In concert, he and his keyboardist typically stretch out their songs to 10 or 15 minutes apiece, and the celebratory atmospheres of the weddings he typically plays are a world apart from the theater seating and video projections of the Oslo concert, the official video of which has been viewed nearly three million times. “But the audience was so warm and accepting,” he marvels. “Everyone stood up immediately when I started, and danced throughout the song—the entire concert hall.”

That’s hardly surprising: Quite apart from the long-running social and political conflicts that beset Syria, Souleyman’s music is meant to bring all people together in celebration and joy. It’s a task for which a wedding singer is uniquely suited—and if a platform like Mad Decent can help spread his music and his message to an even wider public, all the better. In any case, for Souleyman, his mission is clear. “I am a shaabi singer of music for the people,” he stresses. “We have a long tradition, and I will carry it forward for as long as I am alive, as long as my voice serves me."