Omar Souleyman’s music is a dizzying fusion of contradictions. It’s folk but it’s tech. It’s festive but it’s melancholy. It’s rich with regional arrangements, guided by poetic yearnings. But it’s also workaday entertainment, the type of stuff you churn out for a paycheck.
The Syrian singer has been on the global radar for nearly a decade now—he made his international debut in 2007 with Highway to Hassake, a compilation of old studio jams and live recordings put out by Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies. The album, which culled from hundreds of cassettes originally sold at tape kiosks and bus station stalls in Syria, became a cult favorite and paved the way for Souleyman’s current international renown. In recent years he’s toured Europe and North America, collaborated with Björk, and released two studio albums of all new material—including this year’s Bahdeni Nami, which features production from British and European producers like Four Tet and Modeselektor.
Souleyman’s success has to do with a lot of things. There’s his look: the way he conveys poker-faced cool in keffiyeh, mustache and shades. There’s his tireless work ethic, honed through the years he spent in the ’90s and ’00s performing as a singer-for-hire at weddings and other celebrations across the northeast Hassake region where he grew up. And there’s his “otherness”—the fact that in the post-9/11 era, a lot of Americans have been fascinated with Arab music and culture.
But really, it goes back to the music. Bahdeni Nami, his new album, is classic Souleyman—hard, intense, and totally formulaic. It’s not exactly game-changing work (plenty of artists from the Middle East make raw jams with keyboards and drum machines, and have been doing so for years). But amidst the digitized 4/4 handclaps and familiar verses about romance and longing, there’s an alluring complexity.
Souleyman plays dabke, a style of music and dance that’s beloved across the Levant. Dabke is said to have emerged hundreds of years ago as a way for villagers to efficiently pack down their dirt-and-straw roofs to make them sturdy and waterproof. Today, men and women across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine will gleefully jump into line formation during wedding parties and other celebrations, joining together in dabke’s elaborate kicking-and-stomping dance moves.
“Most of my village is all farms, so we’d have it under the sky,” says Wafa Ghreir, an Assyrian Christian woman who remembers dancing dabke while growing up near the Syrian city of Homs.
Ghreir runs a Syrian restaurant called Kobee Factory in Van Nuys, California, and when I drop by one afternoon and show her my beaten-up CD copy of Highway to Hassake, she doesn’t recognize the singer. That makes sense, since Souleyman was never part of Syria’s mainstream pop industry; he certainly doesn’t command the fame of major Syrian dabke stars like Ali Al Deek and Wafik Habib. However, he scored one big Mid-East hit in the mid-00s—“Khattaba,” a commercially produced anthem concerning the particulars of a wedding dowry—and when I hum the catchy refrain, Ghreir’s eyes light up with recognition.
Before long I’ve got my laptop out, Souleyman's blaring from the tinny speakers. The restaurant is empty save for me and a couple other customers, and suddenly Ghreir and another cook launch into an impromptu dabke demonstration, circling across the floor with their hands on each others’ shoulders, kicking their feet out while singing along.
The approaches of dabke vary depending on region and style, but at its heart this is a collective practice—a marker of one’s identity as much as a form of physical expression. There are a number of regional elements in Souleyman’s music, which incorporates Turkish, Iraqi, and Kurdish styles and arrangements. But when he and his longtime keyboardist Rizan Sa’id perform, the two will often employ a dance beat that carries universal weight. It’s called laff (also transliterated as leff), which is composed of a syncopated dum-tak punch akin to a reggaeton beat, and sounds good whether the BPM is slowed to a soulful crawl or cranked to oblivion.
As a vocalist, Souleyman isn’t exactly a virtuoso. His voice is thick and gruff, adding an extra layer of melancholy to his lovelorn rhymes, delivered in the ’ataba and mawwal sung poetic styles. But he doesn’t have the powerful range of a classically-trained artist like Ibrahim Keivo (also a native of northern Syria), nor does he have the giant personality of Ali Al Deek. In live shows Souleyman is emotionally distant, spending most of his sets clapping disinterestedly and standing stock-still, and in some moments on Bahdeni Nami he digs into his heartfelt lines but doesn’t quite have the vocal power to make them stick.
Still, if Souleyman and Sa’id are more gritty bar band than mind-blowing artistes, they know how to create a powerful, moving sound. And for the most part, their European collaborators know to preserve the dabke sound without interfering too much. For the extended Bahdeni Nami jams “Leil El Bareh” and “Enssa El Aatab,” Berlin duo Modeselektor—who released the album on their label, Monkeytown Records—rearrange dand mixed existing material, giving the electronic grooves and Sa’id’s ornate synth runs a vivid finish.
“We are honored to work with Omar,” the duo tells Noisey in an email. They’ve been listening to Souleyman since Highway to Hassake and have dabbled in Arabic music before, but this is their first proper collaboration with the 49-year-old singer.
“Since we were all brought up on Western music, our ears are probably longing for Eastern rhythmics and sounds,” the duo says. “Eastern music can be quite melancholic even though the beats are often 'technoid.' It's usually very hypnotic. Song structures are different to what we are used to which makes it a lot of fun to work with.”
The past 30 or so years are filled with misbegotten attempts at East-West hybrid, and it’s refreshing to see the foreign collaborators hewing to Souleyman’s vision. Things do move in that direction, though, on the closing track, a misty acid house-y remix of the title track from Dutch artist Legowelt. Far more problematic is the remix of “Darb El Hawa” from Black Lips’ Cole Alexander. Released last month, Alexander’s treatment strips the original song of all its subtlety and rhythmic complexity, adding in hideous war drones and machine gun sounds to make for a tawdry, ham-fisted statement on the current conflict in Syria.
The original “Darb El Hawa” is infinitely better. In fact, it’s the most beautiful song I’ve heard this year. The title means “The Road of Love,” and musically it sets a celebratory mood: over nearly nine minutes seemingly every Arab percussion preset on the drum machine is put to good use in a mid-tempo dabke parade of fills and accents. Meanwhile Sa’id trades off on Korg riffs with the fleet-fingered Khaled Youssef, who’s playing a long-necked Turkish lute called the saz.
However, as soon as Souleyman starts singing, it becomes clear that this “Road of Love” is not what it seems. “For so long, I’ve been waiting for a letter from my loved one,” our hero cries, and with each new verse his voice grows increasingly desperate. He berates his heart; he curses fate: “Oh life, you weighed down on me, look what you’ve done to me.” Resolution never comes, and by the end he sounds broken, almost ghost-like, his words rippling with reverb and delay. Through this tension between Souleyman and his band, they’re able to bring out sweetness and anguish in equal measure, creating a ballad for the finality of life.
While Souleyman his sung about love, his home country has been through four brutal years of civil war. While cities have been rocked with bombs and the Islamic State has murdered countless innocent people and destroyed precious antiquities, millions of desperate refugees have flooded out of the country, risking their lives in an effort to find sanctuary in neighboring countries or in Europe. Due to fighting in his hometown of Ras Al-Ayn, Souleyman himself has been forced to relocate his family to the relative safety of Turkey.
When I get on Skype earlier this summer to interview Souleyman, we don’t talk about any of that. He’s on a tour stop in Toronto, powering through a slate of phoners 45 minutes before soundcheck. I ask if he’s heard news from his hometown, and the Arabic interpreter politely declines to relay my question: “I’m sorry, but Omar, he doesn’t like to speak about politics.”
On the phone Souleyman is quiet and restrained, and maybe some of my questions are getting garbled in translation so it’s harder to build a rapport. But we push through, and in general I admire his resilient public persona. He’s able to open himself up to the world with songs of love and heartbreak, but at the same time he keeps something for himself. When I bring up his forlorn song lyrics, and ask when he personally last had a broken heart, he chuckles, and then dismisses my question outright.
He has “no time for love,” the interpreter says, relaying Souleyman’s response back to me. “He’s really busy with his work.”
Peter Holslin is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.