Syria's Original Nuttah: Omar Souleyman

In conversation with a modest maverick…

Omar Souleyman is an economical chap. When playing live, his movements are contained and minimal. A steady clap on the spot. An itch of the nose. A beckon to the crowd. He is the bringer of dance, not the dancer. Orchestrating energy without expending too much. This economy spreads to interviews, where, like a true poet, he wastes few words and answers our questions with straight succinctness.

- - -

Omar Souleyman, 'Warni Warni', from the album 'Wenu Wenu'

- - -

Are you still based in Syria?
At the moment I live in Turkey, but I am often in Syria.

How has the situation in Syria affected you?
What happens in Syria affects me very much psychologically. As everyone else who is from Syria is affected. I want everything to [go] back as it was and that we all live in peace again.

- - -

You can’t see the eyes behind those perfectly black glasses, but you can assume they’ve seen it all. Since 1994, Omar, a collective of loyal poets, and his keyboard maestro Rizan Sa’id have been creating a mutated form of dabke music, honed from hundreds of legendary wedding performances.

The basic and energetic rhythm is usually thrashed out on a bouzouki, rebab and tablah, but Omar and Sa’id decided to electrify this format and have since revolutionised their domestic dance sound using just a microphone, a keyboard and some bellowing prose. This meant they could play harder, better, faster, and for 10 years they dominated the nation’s cassette kiosks with frenetic live performances captured on amateur recordings.

- - -

Do you still work with the same group of poets when writing lyrics?
When I sing at a wedding there is a poet present. There are several I work with, to assist me to address the wedding party and to greet everyone properly and sufficiently. A wedding celebration is a very special sacred event and my singing there has to be the same way. There are many important things to be said.

Does this music speak for what Syrian music is right now?
Music in Syria is very rich and a wider concept. My music is popular music in the region where I am from. The style of my music has evolved over the (recent) years with influences of technology, which replaced live instruments with electronics and keyboards.

- - -

In 2004, Souleyman became known to Western music audiences thanks to industrious Seattle label Sublime Frequencies, specifically its 2004 release, ‘I Remember Syria’. Amongst many cultural gems of the Arab Republic, the compilation highlighted Souleyman, then the party overlord of his Jazeera region, as a face of the region’s music. Since then he’s won fans from London to Brooklyn, including BjörkDamon Albarn and acclaimed producer Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet. It’s the latter connection which brings us to the present day: Omar’s debut studio album, ‘Wenu Wenu’, produced by one of Britain’s finest beat painters.

- - -

How did you begin working with Four Tet?
My manager put us together and we then recorded ‘Wenu Wenu’ in Brooklyn last March. I am thankful to Kieran for his work on my album and understanding my music. He is the best producer I have ever worked with… He understood my music perfectly and on his own – much before we ever met.

Do you like his music?
I do not know it.

- - -

Omar Souleyman, 'Wenu Wenu', from the album 'Wenu Wenu'

- - -

You can’t blame Omar. Living somewhere between Syria, Turkey and the next tour date, he must not get many opportunities to swot up on the latest Text Records cuts. However, it’s clear on ‘Wenu Wenu’ that when Omar’s manager, Mina Tosti, brought the two together at a studio in Brooklyn, there was a unity of creative electronic minds.

Souleyman’s dabke shares a tempo with house and techno, so in theory Hebden’s trademark methods could be applied perfectly. But, his task wasn’t to make Omar into the Jazeera Bashmore; it was to respectfully capture a chaotic, rough and spirited live performance, but at a better quality than ever before. This couldn’t sound like a novelty Arabic banger to drop in a Fabric mix. It had to sound like those raucous weddings in Ras al-Ayn. This is literal party music.

- - -

Most of your previous releases were recorded live at weddings. How was this different?
All my music is for dancing and it has always been. My new album has a superior sound quality for me, and of course people might be more easily inspired to dance. It’s something I have never had before in my career. Of course, it is very different. All the albums, cassettes or whatever you might have heard before had been recorded live at weddings and other celebrations often by families who are making the party and then distributed.

- - -

The result is special. Souleyman purposefully sings sweet and traditional prose about love and loss in over three languages, over percussion that never gives. Songs like ‘Ya Yumma’ explore arranged marriages from a female perspective, whereas ‘Warni Warni’ is an upbeat, quixotic love song. His vocals alternate with the lightning fingers of Sa’id, as he doles out routine bursts of octave-leaping keyboard solos.

The pair’s accelerated tailoring of classic styles like dabke, Iraqi choubi, Arabic mawal, Kurdish themes of love and poetic Muwashshah, have dragged these traditional styles into an electronic production age, and Four Tet adds a modern polish to this Middle Eastern marital rave up.

- - -

The lyrics of ‘Wenu Wenu’ are often sad and heartbroken. Being that dabke is traditionally wedding music, is this normal?
Yes, the lyrics of dabke are not always with happy themes. Mine are those of love, broken hearts, and simple things like this.

The song ‘Ya Yumma’ seems to comment strongly on arranged marriages, from a woman’s perspective. Is this ironic based on dabke’s wedding traditions?
Not at all. This is fine and normal for us.

- - -

Omar Souleyman, 'Ali Kodino', live at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, Paris

- - -

It would be easy to assume that this Souleyman album is the sound of the Middle East right now, but that isn’t really the case. Omar is 47 years old. With hundreds of unofficial releases in the past, this is essentially a greatest hits. Judging new Middle Eastern music based on ‘Wenu Wenu’ would be like researching the new sounds of North America by banging on the latest R. Stevie Moore release.

No, the important thing about this record was finally realising Omar’s work in studio quality. It’s the immortalisation of a vital moment in time. Since the late-’90s, the publicised work of Souleyman and co has laid the instrumental foundations for other electronic music to flourish.

In Egypt and surrounding areas, this is happening. Genres like electro-chaabi (championed early by music journalist John Doran) and mahraganat are becoming the commercial norm. These are still based upon classic wedding styles, but incorporate a rap influence, and a fresh and remarkable juxtaposition of heavily politicised lyrics and commercially friendly Auto-Tune.

And with labels and crate-diggers like Sublime Frequencies, Luaka Bop, Analogue Africa, Honest Jon’s and Andy Votel distributing these releases and more worldwide, it is becoming an exciting time to explore Eastern electronics.

- - -

Do you still play weddings?
At the moment I do not accept any offers for weddings in Syria, but recently I have done a wedding in Turkey.

Is ‘Wenu Wenu’ something you have been planning to put together for a while?
I am very proud of my new album. In back of my mind, it was always there and I wanted to achieve a perfect sound. Now that has happened.

- - -

Words: Joe Zadeh
Photos: Nacho Alegre (website)

‘Wenu Wenu’ is out now on Ribbon Music. Omar Souleyman is online: Facebook  / Twitter

The new issue of Clash, from which this article is taken, is out now.

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-