On June 2, Turkey-based, Al Jazira-born singer Omar Souleyman will release his Mad Decent debut, To Syria, With Love. It's brimming with complicated keyboard and percussive arrangements, and is something of a nostalgic tribute to his war-torn homeland, which he hasn't been able to return to in six years. Ahead of his appearance at Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina this Thursday, we asked Souleyman to tell us about some of the Syrian music that's inspired him most over the years. Via a translator, he came back to us with a primer on Syrian shaabi, a strain of celebratory rural folk song that roughly translates to "popular music," or "music of the working people."
Omar Souleyman: Around the early 1990s, all of Syria started singing in the shaabi style. I not know exactly when the shaabi way of music started, but it must have been around for decades at least. All of our regions within Syria have their own shaabi, including Al-Jazira—the region of Northeastern Syria where I come from—and also Tartus, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur, and Latakia.
Shaabi is sung poetry—songs that different singers interpret in their own way. The subject matter mostly revolves around love, romantic intrigue, and family matters—just like a lot of my songs. Traditionally, shaabi songs are accompanied by live instruments that are local to the region where they are being performed, like percussion, saz, zornas, quanun, rebab, and woodwind instruments. Shaabi is often played at weddings, but also at any any occasion where people are celebrating and where there is dancing. But people also listen to it at home and in the car; it plays in the streets and in shops.
Shaabi is mainly the music of rural areas—the music of working people, and people who work on the land. That doesn't necessarily mean that only poor people listen to shaabi, because there are a lot of well-to-do people in the rural areas as well. But this music is never listened to by educated people from the cities; they consider this kind of music "trash music."
In 1996, I released a song "La'ber 3ala Turkiyya" in the shaabi style, and everyone in Syria started singing it after me. That's how wide the influence of shaabi music was—even my songs were being copied. Starting around the year 2000, pretty much every Arab land was listening to and singing shaabi. In Beirut, in Kuwait, in the Emirates and even in Saudi Arabia—in all those lands where men and women are separated in celebration parties for religious reasons—they played shaabi songs from Syria.
Any singer in the Arab world who wanted to become famous went first to the shaabi style. Even Najwa Karam—a famous Lebanese singer—started singing in the shaabi style recently. So Syrian shaabi had a big influence on the music in the region; singers were turning to it in order to gain more fans in different levels of society. What I should note is that in their versions of shaabi, these popular singers were no longer using a full band—only keyboards. The Shaabi style doesn't need a whole band; the keyboards are able to be that band, with all the beats, samples, and instrumental sounds they contain.
Below are some songs by my favorite Syrian Shaabi singers—the artists who have influenced and inspired me most.
1. Saad Al Harbawi — "Wardina"
Saad al Harbawi is from the Al-Jazira province in the northeastern Syria—from the same town as me. He has a beautiful and powerful voice, and he performs in a very special way. He has been blind since childbirth, so he has never seen a woman, or her beautiful jewelry or makeup, the color of her hair. It is remarkable how he sings and brings these images to life without ever having seen a thing.
When I first started singing, I sang all his songs, and studied his style in depth. His voice has a sharp, piercing quality which I love—simultaneously tender and persuasive. His lyrics are very deep, and I consider him my teacher and my greatest inspiration. He is one of the oldest shaabi singers that we have ever known—a symbol of the shaabi genre for all who know it and appreciate it.
In "Wardina," Saad Al Harbawi sings about a girl who is wearing a golden nose piercing. In the Al-Jazira region, this jewelry enhances the beauty of girls. The man in the song sings for his fiancée. He expresses how precious she is to him, and how much he loves her. In return, she says that his words have touched her heart. Since this song describes the beauty of the girl, it's very common to listen to it during family parties and weddings.
2. Saad Al Harbawi — "Molayya"
"Molayya" is an old traditional song. It originated in the town of Ar-Raqqa, but in the recent years, inhabitants of Al-Jazira have started singing and listening to it. This one also describes the beauty of a girl, with a young man giving compliments to a young woman. Usually, people dance dabke when listening to this song during weddings.
3. Hamid Al Fourati - "Cholaki"
Hamid Al Fourati is a very beloved artist from Aleppo. He became famous very quickly, but he is not as famous as Saad Al Harwabi—perhaps half so. He has a very beautiful voice, and is a great entertainer with a particularly welcoming personality. He is a very happy man, I and like how that comes through in every song he sings.
"Cholaki" is a very popular song about a young man who loves a woman who doesn't love him back. He is trying to comfort his beloved because at the moment she is feeling sad and down.
4. Hdr Al Naser - "Abu Smeera"
Hdr Al Naser Is originally from Hasakah—a town called Shaddadi. He started singing around the year 1997, and gained some fame, but is not that well known. I like him because he is a good person with a beautiful voice and a nice performance. He is a very modest, decent guy, and that is reflected in his singing.
This song is usually sung at weddings. In it, Naser sings of a beautiful girl wearing perfume who is strolling past people on the street. They all start praising her beauty and her perfume, but she pays no attention to them. They describe her as a "beauty queen."
5. "Walla lo rooh el Halep" —Ahsen Al Hasan
Ahsen Al Hasan is from Qamishli. He has a tireless way of singing and a great intensity in his voice, while making it sound like it is easy for him. His vocal color is not one that I've ever personally aspired to, but I still like him very much. I don't know what happened to him. He just stopped singing at weddings and celebrations in his parts, but I don't know why. His songs were really beautiful. And people liked him.
This song is about a young man who is promising to buy a young woman gifts in the hopes that she will love him. In a way, it's a tale of unrequited love. I never have sung this one in my life, but you can often hear it playing at weddings, at family occasions, in cars, and simply when people are at home, doing nothing special.