The Levant is no stranger to rhythm. It’s a region that holds onto a frenzied pulse tapped out by the ancient civilisations covering historical Syria, even if western news reports would solely depict a region withstanding prolonged crescendo. Ironically, it’s a rhythm that’s been upset by outside influence; the unwanted screech of European strings. Sykes and Picot’s mournful symphony of 1916 whereby they ran unwanted ruler lines across the sub-continent.
The indigenous rhythm still persists though, like a lifeblood, a constant prevailing above disturbance in the region. It’s clear such an immemorial comfort with movement and timing is incumbent. One that owes to the tradition of the Phoenicians, inhabitants of the Levant and much of the Mediterranean blanket spread from as far back as 2500 BC. In short, they laid the blueprint of Dabke, a ceremonial dance which takes its name from the loose Arabic translation of ‘the stamping of feet’.
A quick YouTube search of Dabke will draw out joyous wedding scenes. Attendees with arms interlocked, absorbing the electrical current of incessant 4/4 and off kilter woodwind sections. Play this combination at speed and you’ll produce a picture of decadent dancefloors swarming with swirling wedding guests, ducking, weaving and gracefully gliding their limbs across polished laminates. Speed the combination up again, throw in impromptu poetry, synthesisers, rolling percussion and you arrive at the music of OMAR SOULEYMAN – Syria’s foremost wedding singer.
Originally from the village of Tell-Tamer, situated in north eastern Syria, Souleyman, a Sunni Muslim, is now based in Turkey. While only a short distance from his native country, the move was somewhat reluctant. He’s there simply to avoid a bloody civil war which has raged for close to eight years. While the war in Syria continues to spread destruction and draw in international players, it’s not a topic which Souleyman wants to discuss. The war isn’t what defines him. As he puts it rather frankly, he’s defined by a dedication to the culture indigenous to his native region. “I didn’t attempt to define anything, really. My voice is my voice, that’s just how it is”, he tells us. “But everything else in my music is a product of upholding the tradition of my region and its music.”
His trajectory towards worldwide recognition is somewhat unique. And yet, it appears somewhat delayed for an artist now in his 50s whose discography reaches over 700 records. The foundation of his journey stems from pursuing music on a part time basis. Weekends were where Souleyman would transition from labourer to a composer of what’s now regarded as Arab dancehall, punctuated by flashes of acid house. It’s a genre that’s brought Omar criticism for its nature of stretching the boundaries of tradition. This is something he accepts, but not something he dwells on. “The misinterpretation of my music doesn’t bother me. It’s something that happens more in the Middle East than the West. Those who like it are welcome, the rest I’m okay with.” Still, the level of output by the Syrian vocalist remains staggering, regardless of whether the music abides to strict tradition.
The regular playing of Syrian weddings is the source of this enormous back catalogue. Traditionally, a recording of the live performance at the ceremony will be presented to the married couple as a gift. As a result, listeners in the west discovering Souleyman’s music some years later uncovered something of a treasure chest as more and more recordings were found. Not only did the offer of gigs in Europe and the USA follow, but so have collaborations with Bjork and an album, 2013’s Wenu Wenu, produced by Four Tet. It’s a journey that’s seen him swap matrimonial ceremonies for live recordings on behalf of Boiler Room, contrasting his audience between weekend party goers and wedding guests. Even between the two, a frenzied state of being overcomes all in attendance – thanks to his whirlwind ride of Acid Dabke.
Souleyman seems moderately conflicted about his assent from wedding aficionado to a must-have name lining your record store’s world music section, now that he’s at home in plush recording studios. Perhaps it’s a worry that the rawness of his music would be smoothed off by the polish of high end producers and equipment. “[The step up] had to be done to be honest. It was the only way I was going to grow in the industry. There was no other way, really, but I’m happier for it overall.” Listening to the records doesn’t leave a diluted taste. It’s something he’s embraced beyond the initial hesitant acceptance. Wenu Wenu, for example, rarely gasps for breath as it sprints through drum machine and woodwind loops hammered out via keyboard at breakneck speeds. Souleyman’s monolithic presence brings it all home; his voice carrying the expansive echo of Levantine rhythm, effortlessly bridging the music back to the communities of his homeland.
Signing to Diplo’s Mad Decent label for his most recent album, 2017’s To Syria, With Love, appears to mark a full transition from wedding singer to shining star of left-field world music. But, in a typical humble manner, this isn’t how he sees it. “I still sing at weddings. Whenever I am free and asked to do it I will. That hasn’t changed. I’ve come a long way in the last nine years of so, but I’m still the same person. I just want to do more of the same, but always better, and always be able to take care of my family.”
With online plays streaming into the multi-millions, the draw for more western concerts is inevitable. This was not always to be such a joyous occasion. Departing Beruit by way of Syria for a concert in the USA involved avoiding live fire as opposing forces came head to head. It’s here where the balance between profession and creative outlet are tested for Omar. Most touring artists would worry over the delivery of their rider rather than arriving at a venue without war wounds.
Notwithstanding such upheavals, his frequent waves of worldwide shows display a commitment to spreading the energy of his craft, and a willingness to adapt. “Of course, there are a lot of differences between playing at Syrian weddings and concerts in the West. I know I have to adapt to my different audiences. But even when playing weddings, I had to do this, so it’s not only at western parties that I consider approaching differently.” This is no surprise given the melting pot of cultures residing in the Levant, a stretch of land which incorporates communities from Sunni, Shia, Maronite Christian, and Kurdish backgrounds, to name but a few. One consistent through all of these shows, be that Western or in the Middle East, is Souleyman: the prosaic vocalist, tinted shades harnessed to the face, imperious moustache and traditional keffiah worn around the head, clapping along gracefully and timely, like a sea-bound buoy calmly placed amongst hurried tides of instrumentation. He’s unnerved by the speed of his music. It’s a marathon ran at full sprint. He doesn’t even break a sweat. Souleyman rides the sonic waves of the Levant with furious release and 21st century panache, albeit, below it all, there’s a resounding ache for calmness in the Syria he cannot call home.
Omar Souleyman plays 24 Kitchen Street on Saturday 2nd February. Buy tickets from Skiddle here.