Written by Tom Little
Saying singer Omar Souleyman is “huge in Syria” would be damning him with faint praise, but trust me, Omar is seriously popular back home, and he’s getting to be big news just about everywhere else too.
Souleyman hails from Syria’s dusty northeast, a crossroads of Kurdish, Turkish and Arab cultures, and the influence of all three is evident in Souleyman’s pounding take on the region’s folk pop, Dabke.
Omar, according to his website, began his musical career later in life, starting off originally as a wedding singer at the ripe old age of 30. His talents saw him picked to play at a host of other local events, and along the way he picked up some backing players, who accompany him on synth-modified keyboards, violins and the ney.
Not only is Souleyman’s music a veritable melting-pot of the region’s different styles, but his singing also incorporates local poetry traditions, often about painful, unrequited romance, peformed in the Arabic dialect native to northeastern Syria.
Souleyman is usually accompanied on stage by one of Hasake’s dialect poets, whispering verses into his ear moments before he sings them. Looks strange, if you’ve seen him live (or taken a peek at YouTube, for that matter), but it certainly seems to work.
Meanwhile, news of Hasake’s maestro started to spread across Syria in the late 90s, and tapes of his infectious electronic dabke started to appear on music stalls around the country.
His rise was all the more impressive seeing as he seems to have done so without relying on the ubiquitous system of Wastat, connections in high places, that many Syrian artists rely on to gain fame.
He remained particularly popular around his home province – I first heard of Omar in 2008 when travelling north of Aleppo. The taxi driver, frustrated by my poor Arabic, put a tape on to prevent any further attempts at discussion and sure enough, it was Mr. Dabke himself blaring out the cab’s tinny speakers.
Not so long before my introduction in the taxi, Omar Souleyman’s fortunes had changed drastically: painfully hip world-music label Sublime Frequencies released a selection of his top hits in the 2007 collection, Highway to Hasake, bringing his unique brand of dabke to the world stage for the first time.
Five years on from his first release with Sublime Frequencies, five LPSs, innumerable world tours and a collaboration with Bjork later, Omar Souleyman has acquired a global following. His reputation as a consummate performer has made him a smash at trendy festivals in Europe and the States, and it is the cream of these shows that make up Omar’s latest Sublime Frequencies release, Haflat Gharbia, Arabic for “the Western concerts”.
It is quite an experience to hear Souleyman playing live, and it is clear from the recordings on Haflat Gharbia that he is a consummate showman, who relishes every moment on stage. It’s also clear that the western audiences he plays to are pretty keen on his turbo-charged Dabke. too
Sublime Frequencies’ latest release is the driving, pounding proof that Omar Souleyman is every good as bit as the indie press (and Syrian taxi drivers) might have you believe.
Find out more about Omar Souleyman on his website – http://omarsouleyman.virb.com