To Syria, With Love: The Heartbroken Folk of Omar Souleyman
There are plenty of artists with compelling back stories out there, but few people in music today can lay claim to a single attribute that marks them as a genuine one-off. Omar Souleyman has dozens.
Born in the marginal northeast of Syria in 1966, he was a farmer by trade before being encouraged to pick up a microphone around the age of 30. In recent years, he’s become the most visible Middle Eastern figure in contemporary dance music.
Omar Souleyman’s sunglasses, keffiyeh and finely-trimmed moustache combo is so slick and so instantly familiar that his face alone – or even crude sketches of it – are often all that’s needed to carry a record cover. Which is convenient, when you tally Souleyman’s prodigious output of wedding tapes, compilations put together by Seattle-based diggers Sublime Frequencies and recent studio LPs. It’s estimated that, in total, Omar Souleyman’s back catalogue consists of around 600 releases.
Since coming to wider prominence at the turn of the decade, Souleyman’s touring schedules have also been relentless. For his energetic live show, he orates stories of tangled relationships and tussling lovers in a mix of Kurdish and Arabic, which are laid over welting beats and synthesised delirium and played at warp speed. From big-league American festivals to prestigious European music halls to the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Concert, audiences dance to a booming sound which they have little point of reference, and in languages the majority can’t understand. At each gig, Souleyman is strikingly in a league of one.
Popular though he may be (club smash Wenu Wenu has 17 million views and rising on YouTube), Souleyman’s signature style is polarising. Broadly in the tradition of dabke – celebratory line-dancing of the Levant, in effect – but with a flavour of Iraqi choubi, the ululating keyboards have rapid-fire digitised 4/4 claps riding atop and canned beats undergirding it. To some, it’s a muscular, electrifying update of a cultural tradition that dates back to Phoenician times; to others, it’s a garish slice of exotic novelty. I find Souleyman’s tracks to be amazing party jams. Somewhat like the incessant tug of gabber or ragga, the music motions me to move, even if the lyrics and cultural touch points don’t fully resonate. But I can just as easily see how the ramped-up tempo and barked incantations can jar. Getting his music out there and accepted isn’t easy, and controlling the narrative can be trickier.
The label for new album To Syria, With Love is Diplo’s Mad Decent, which has caused some chatter. But as Paul Devro, head of A&R at the globe- trotting EDM-leaning label explains to me, it represented a joyous coup: “I think it might have been the quickest email I’ve ever responded to!” The email itself was a stroke of fortune, and the last lifeline for an album that came close to being shelved: Souleyman’s manager Mina Tosti hit up Mad Decent after an agonising process of shopping it around with no luck. But Devro and his team had Souleyman on the radar for about a decade, and the offer to work with him was greeted like manna from heaven. “I used to dig for Middle Eastern music a lot on the internet in the mid-late 2000s,” says Devro. “We would always have said yes to an Omar LP.” The love affair back then extended as far as asking a bouncer at their shows in Vancouver to bring back CDs from his native Syria. To Syria, With Love is a completion of the quest.
Syria itself casts a long, sad shadow. Souleyman’s international breakthrough in 2011 coincided with the Arab Spring’s jolt of promise at the start of that year, but his homeland’s tragic collapse into a ruinous civil war by the end of it. He has lived in a state of semi- exile with his family in Turkey ever since, but he can’t quite escape the stigma of his nationality. In 2013, his application for a work visa to play Sweden’s Way Out West festival was denied on the premise he would take root and claim asylum there, and earlier this year, a set at SXSW was shelved due to President Trump’s harebrained travel ban. In both cases, Souleyman won out – the Swedish government backed down, and Souleyman has conducted a tour of the USA this summer, while Trump’s Islamaphobic scheming thankfully remains in purgatory. But both episodes underscore the point: Syrian nationality, by proxy, is an easily weaponised issue.
Having refused to be dragged into public discussions of anything overtly political, Souleyman has now found the confidence to address the emotional turmoil wrought by the conflict on To Syria, With Love. Over doleful strings and with more weight on his diction, he asks “What’s the good of patience, when the pain is so deep?”, pleads for “our alienation [to] end, so we can go back home” and admits his “heart feels dead among the dead.” He is now addressing the situation on his own terms, by neutering the politics and focusing on the personal.
“It is very important,” Souleyman tells me, “that my audience, anywhere across the world, always sees the best picture of me possible.”
Ironically, I can’t see any picture at all. Souleyman is at the end of a temperamental phone line in an Istanbul airport departure lounge, with Tosti by his side and translator Manal Moufarrej also on the line. I’m calling from an Airbnb in Fukuoka, southern Japan. That the conversation happened at all is a miracle; that it went well is perhaps a second one. Souleyman has a reputation for being a cagey interviewee, apparently churning out monosyllabic answers when he feels the line of questioning is too generic or asking for cigarette breaks almost instantly if the vibe is off. Thankfully, during our exchange, this attitude doesn’t emerge.
I was told questions about Sublime Frequencies and former keyboard virtuoso Rizan Sa’id – who had been by the singer’s side since roughly the beginning of his career – would be off limits. This is a telling break with the celebratory early shows at Glastonbury and ATP I caught, when he would be flanked by Sa’id and a live bouzouki player, careening through infectious Sublime-issued material like breakout hit Leh Jani for up to 20 minutes at a time. The now familiar manner of how Souleyman stalks the stage – each upward flick of the wrist and trademark ‘eyyyy’ sending the crowd berserk – have been tamped down, and the smile is absent from his face for large portions of the gig. Waves of crowd-surfers in keffiyehs sadly no longer sail overhead.
Pressed on whether touring has become a drag, he murmurs in disagreement. “I always enjoy these performances, even though I feel tired most of the time. When I stand on stage, I forget my problems.” It’s a relief to hear that he still “enjoy[s] the crowd cheering for me.” While he may be a little drained by six years of travel, Souleyman suggests that he is too much of a perfectionist to phone it in. “I am very keen to protect my reputation first, my art second, and my popularity third. This is a very sensitive issue for me; it is more important than my safety. I always make sure to respect my audience by not making mistakes, and offering them good art.” Throughout our conversation, Souleyman returns to the topic of his audience, attentiveness to their needs and interpersonal contact (perhaps this is a by-product of his time spent as a regional wedding performer, given that he’d conjure up songs about newlyweds on the spot).
“Separation from Syria exists for many reasons,” he says while we’re on the subject. “I miss the social relationships with neighbours, friends and family. I don’t have any social relationships in Europe, unfortunately.” The language barrier, he tells me, boxes him in. “I feel bad when I meet Westerners on the street but cannot have conversations with them. They come to say hello and take photos, but this is as far as we can go together. It makes me sad.” You would think this stultifying isolation is eased at his own gigs, but if anything, it becomes even more pronounced. “When I do shows, I never show my face before going on the stage. I move from the stage, to the car, to the hotel room.” He pauses. “Nobody sees me at all.”
“In respect of the suffering of my people, I preferred to sing not just about love. I convinced myself that I had to make a contribution”
Souleyman’s following is more amorphous than most. Generally speaking, his previous collaborators such as Four Tet and Modeselektor have made hay being worldly and sonically ambitious, so their fans aren’t going to have a system shock when presented with a man in a thob. But Mad Decent – with a roster that includes frat boy-friendly acts like Dillon Francis and RiFF RaFF – represents a steeper incline. The social media clips and teaser trailers made by Mad Decent for To Syria, With Love generated a split response: YouTube is a predictable cesspit of extremes; Facebook, though, is net positive, with many comments applauding Diplo for taking a risk
on pushing an Arab to an American audience. Over the past few years, Omar Souleyman has encouraged tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Western listeners to embrace Middle Eastern music. That’s no small beer.
It is, however, something that has caused consternation back on his home turf. Souleyman’s sudden shot to notoriety sparked debate in Syria and neighbouring countries: this wedding crooner in caricature garb, this was the guy to make it in the West? Souleyman is acutely aware of this, bringing it up without prompt. “There are a lot of people amongst my Arab audience who use social media and other platforms to mock me and undermine my success. It comes,” he reckons, “with envy. I suppose this happens to others, but I am not pleased that this keeps happening to me for such a long time.”
The reality is that Syrian culture has been completely jettisoned in the face of unrelenting war – something Souleyman has little faith will end soon – and, whether he was the ‘right’ candidate or not to become the country’s breakout star, there isn’t likely to be anyone else achieving what he has for some time. While he could have continued to re-sell slight variations of his love jams with ever glossier packaging, he is instead carrying over the empathy of his storytelling to “address people outside the country who are alienated and trapped away from their hometown, like me.” This is important, and it should draw pause from his critics.
“In respect of the suffering of my people,” he explains, “I preferred to sing not just about love. People are dying and my country is being destroyed. I convinced myself that I had to make a contribution.” Is he shaken to see a world increasingly dominated by those that reject the communal values of togetherness? “Yes, I feel very sad, because I believe in communication, in love, in fraternity – and I don’t see a difference between Arabs and Westerners. We all share this.” What he says next is tough to swallow, even told through a translator from a long distance.
“I am aware my children can see all the killings and destruction on social media, and I know very well they will never forget these pictures for as long as they live. It saddens me greatly. I check [on the carnage] every ten days, and then I log off. I am willing in my next album to make songs about social life; to tackle topics like family relationships, childhood, and again Syria. I am hoping that in my music I will change these ideas, and I will stop my kids from thinking about all the atrocities around the world.” With this, he is whisked away to his flight.
Omar Souleyman’s time in the spotlight has been both exhilarating and strange. His very existence in the field of electronic music is a story itself, and he’s enjoyed a longevity I doubt many would have predicted. Multiple narrative leylines converge on him: a performer with an evident gift to inspire outbreaks of communal joy, but lacking basic points of communication with the vast majority of his fans; greatly respected by some and not taken entirely seriously by others.
In the face of all this, Souleyman is gradually placing the onus on himself to synergise the Syrian experience for us, and put words to his status as an exile – both cultural and geographic. Where before I suspected he was tiring of this lifestyle, now I’m detecting that he may have found a renewed purpose.
During our email exchanges, Tosti mentions that “Omar doesn’t know the meaning of a break”. In a sad way, he can’t afford to either. The gravitas of his country’s situation, and a crystallisation of self-perception, has mitigated a shift within. His omnipresence on the tour circuit is something of a necessity: working endlessly to not just remain a mainstay, but to keep a rare positive figure of Syria in rotation worldwide. That’s a hard, heavy task.
Omar Souleyman is, as ever, out on his own.
To Syria, With Love is out now via Mad Decent