Although his initial introduction into the western music sphere was through a world music record label and despite being put under eye rolling, niche genres such as neo-bedouin techno… underneath all of the hipster rhetoric, Souleyman’s music does seem to represent a strange union between traditional Syrian music played at Detroit techno speed. This communion is best illustrated at his live shows. As I watched drunk Glaswegian techno-heads hold hands with Syrian men dressed in Syrian flags and the traditional keffiyehs and tunics, forming a dance circle front and centre, I too believed in the binding power of neo-bedouin techno.
Souleyman built his reputation as a wedding performer in Syria, in fact most of his recordings were ripped directly from his wedding performances after he offered the songs to the bride and groom. He was then introduced to western audiences through the world music record label Sublime Frequencies, when founder Mark Gregis overheard his warped sound blaring from speakers in Damascus. Since then he has risen to cult status. His growing fan-base includes many powerful and eccentric artists and he has taken advantage of any opportunity to collaborate with Western musicians; recording with Damon Albarn and Bjork and his latest album ‘Wenu Wenu’ produced by Fourtet.
The sparse stage was set with a simple red curtain as a backdrop, two keyboards and nothing else, so when Souleyman stepped onto the barren stage wearing his red keffiyeh and his trademark aviator sunglasses, he looked as if he was still playing weddings in Northern Syria. Souleyman opened the show with a softly sung ballad but the tempo quickly hit high speed as he broke into the fast paced beat and frantic pirouetting keyboard solos, the key characteristics of the dabke genre that is prevalent in the Middle East.
He revisited the 30 second ballad halfway through the show but it was more of an intermission, allowing us to catch our breath before he continued with the eleven minute bangers shot through with the frantic keyboard solos that seemed to combine the sound of an 80s korg synth with traditional Syrian reed instruments. Keyboardist Rizan Sa’id uses pentatonic scales that contain twice as many notes as most Western ones, which provide for more complex twists and turns, but after a few songs the crowd become involved in a pattern of almost interchangeable solos that demonstrates a focus on energy as opposed to idiosyncratic songs.
People come to see Omar for the same reason newly-weds hired him; because they want to dance feverishly as Sa’id pushes the tempo higher and higher and Omar’s voice curls and bellows over the PA. Sadly, the pageantry of Syrian flags billowing over cavorting hipsters was tarnished by the news of Souleyman’s exile from his home of Ra’s al-‘Ayn when the civil war broke out between Kurdish separatists. The Syrian army and rebel forces are ripping the country to shreds. Performing as a wedding singer since 1994 and releasing over 500 songs, the 57 year old laments the demise of his government. “There is really no more music in Syria,” Souleyman told The Independent ahead of a concert in Lisbon. “The darkness of war has taken over. I do not perform in Syria any longer and for the time being I will not do so. It is not the right time for that.”
Souleyman and his family found refuge in Turkey and he continues to tour Europe and America, however he was denied entry to Sweden to perform for fear that he would seek asylum. Like it or not, Souleyman’s career trajectory forces us to stop seeing dabke and other genres that are labelled ‘world’ music as something on the other side of a western/eastern divide, however the assumption of Swedish officials demonstrates how that divide is reinforced by western governments.
Written by Sean Gallen, with special thanks Joe Blythe and The Arches.