To hear Omar Souleyman sing is to hear a part of Syria that’s been buried deep below searing conflict. Despite the turmoil in his homeland, Omar Souleyman continues to be a wedding singer for the world. The path he took to get there, though, is incomprehensible to the Western World, let alone the average musician. Souleyman is from a rural town in North East Syria (the Al-Jazira region) and, now, a very bloody part of the world. “It is difficult to travel abroad from Syria. There aren’t many flights—hardly any,” he says. So, when the civil war broke out 6 years ago, he relocated to Turkey, leaving friends and family behind to pursue his career in music without fear.
Being the world’s wedding singer is a big role, but even at 51 he seems to have endless energy for it. This year he is playing a short run of shows in America, including a show at Le Poisson Rouge presented by the World Music Institute this Thursday, May 11. In June, he will release another record of ecstatic electronic dance-pop called To Syria, with Love on Mad Decent Records.
Long before Souleyman was on Discogs he was a legend in Syria. “I started to sing when I was a child at home. I was told that I had a good voice. So ever since then I have been singing. Maybe 20 years ago I would sing at weddings for ten minutes or so. And then more and more after that,” Souleyman says. He made around 500 recordings on VHS tapes—the majority of which he gave away as gifts to the wedding party. Over time, people sought copies of the tapes, duplicated them, and his popularity in the Arab World was cemented. And, his music evolved: It picked up tempo, gained complexity, and his cast of collaborators expanded. Now his resume includes collaborations with Bjork and Four Tet, but his signature sound continues to be lyrical improvisation accompanied by a keyboard player racing across scales.
“All over the world I am accepted warmly.
People dance non-stop.
Sometimes if the audience knows
my lyrics, they also sing with me.”
The region he grew up in included a confluence of cultures from three countries: Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. His music is a mix of the “dabke” (dance) music from each, but also of regional approaches. Despite the amalgamation of styles and traditions from distinguishable places, the whole world responds to it. Omar says, “All over the world I am accepted warmly. People dance non-stop. Sometimes if the audience knows my lyrics, they also sing with me.” The music he’s developed is much faster than his native folk music, which is probably the only facet that can be attributed to Western music. He’s very cut and dry on the matter: “I don’t listen to any Western music. I’m not interested at all in techno or anything like that. I have my own traditions to follow.”
There is no set formula for any of his albums, which feature a multitude of performers recorded in a multitude of places. “Omar has countless keyboard players he works with and chooses them as he wishes, the same goes for guys who give him lyrics,” his manager Mina Tosti says, emphasizing that art-networking in Syria is vastly different than in America. “To Syria with Love” was made with Hasan Alo and Shawah Al Amad, who are from his hometown in Syria where everyone knows everyone. Tosti explains, “It’s a very small rural environment. There is no other way to ‘meet’ over there. This album along with his previous album Bahdeni Nami were recorded in Istanbul, while, in 2013, his album Wenu Wenu was produced by Four Tet and recorded in Brooklyn. To Syria with Love is 7 tracks of thumping, high energy club-pop. With long instrumental passages and Omar’s gruff vocals, these tracks are built to move and entertain you.
All of his albums showcase two prominent themes: seductive love songs and lamentations that long for a peaceful return to his homeland. Much of the first half of To Syria, With Love is romantic—paeans to beautiful women, with pulsing beats and hypnotic Arabic synth lines. Then come the blues. In “Chobi” he sings, “our sadness is larger than mountains, we are in exile, and our nights are long.” “Mawal” is the album’s outlier, trading the usual thump for a slab of smoky noir-jazz. Omar laments, “Being away from home is like having dust in my eyes. What’s the good of patience, when the pain is oh so deep.”
“Being away from home is like
having dust in my eyes.
What’s the good of patience,
when the pain is oh so deep.”
It’s impossible to keep the mind from wandering back to the Middle East and all of the questions it raises. However, Souleyman does not address politics in his lyrics or interviews, only focusing on the emotional weight of longing. I asked him if there is still a culture of live music and weddings anymore in Syria. He responded, “I cannot tell you—I don’t know. I am not sure if there are weddings. There must be—probably less—because people have other things on their mind there.” He continues to release records loved by hundreds of thousands, and tours all over the world, at this point, as a global superstar. The world may have drastically changed and given his music a shade of blue, but he maintains his Syrian folk-pop roots, “I always improvise. I am still a wedding singer.”