“Music like forbidden Morse code“
Although the world music market already encompasses several geographical areas, European audiences often miss out on some astonishing sounds. This is especially the case for the Arabic pop music scene from Jakarta to Damascus. There, as in Africa, the cassette tape, an ancient relic from our perspective, is a beloved music medium. It can take years for someone to discover the local stars of this Occidental cassette market; for Omar Souleyman, it took sixteen years.
The Syrian is a superstar in his homeland, where his music is sold literally on every street corner. Since the beginning of the 1990s, he has produced 600 cassettes. The U.S. label Sublime Frequencies, which specializes in obscure folk and pop sounds, has now brought together the highlights of his career. The Seattle record company markets Souleyman’s music as a “forbidden Morse code.” And they aren’t far off the mark: old anachronistic keyboards howl into your ears like the sirens of police cars in an old action film, while an electric guitar slithers about, sounding like the Arabic relative of surf rock master Dick Dale’s instrument, wrapped in a battery of sound effects.
Lively percussion, half from computers, half from drums, drives the music forward relentlessly. And then Souleyman’s voice, swinging back and forth between ecstatic twangy meandering and galloping chants. Suddenly the music stops and a slow groove, like a belly dance, starts up, accompanied by a breakneck lute solo. All of this in a quality that no sound engineer north of Istanbul would let out of the studio. What’s hiding behind this music? And who is Omar Souleyman, who always appears on his covers wearing a kufiya, enormous sunglasses and an equally gigantic moustache?
Souleyman comes from agricultural northeastern Syria, where the most disparate traditions of the Islamic world come together. “I wasn’t born into a musical family, but in the region where I come from, you can hardly escape music,” he says. “A friend encouraged me to sing at local festivals, and a little later, in 1995, I met the Kurdish-Syrian keyboardist Rizan Said. Since then, I’ve been singing professionally with him together at weddings all over northeastern Syria.”
Souleyman crafts his songs from a variety of sources, from the Kurdish Shekhani rhythm to the Iraqi Choubi or Mawal style of singing in which the singer demonstrates his improvisational prowess. His hallmark, though, is the Dabke. “The Dabke is a modern folk dance that you find throughout the Levant, both in Syria and Lebanon, in Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and parts of Turkey,” he explains. “My sound mirrors the Dabke from the Jazeera region, a place where incredibly different influences intersect among the Muslim, Christian, Kurdish and Armenian populations. You can also feel the proximity to Iraq in our music.”
The Dabke was originally a form of dance in which the participants place their hands on each other’s shoulders and dance in a line, stomping on the ground, and Souleyman has spiced it up with anarchic electronic zest. “In the 1990s, we really did something pioneering,” he says proudly. “At first, we sampled traditional instruments, such as the Mijwiz flute and the Rebab fiddle, into specially-programmed keyboards.” Ali Shaker, a specialist who creates the aforementioned surf sound effect, also electrifies and amplifies the Bouzouki and the Saz, a long-necked lute. Souleyman assures us, though, that neither he nor his musicians have ever heard of Dick Dale.
Ataba poetry, also a traditional genre, works brilliantly together with the music to create a unique experience. Souleyman draws from the poetic artistry of his long-term partner Mahmoud Harbi, who often develops the poetry during a performance. He stands there chain-smoking next to Souleyman on stage, whispering words spontaneously into his ear. “These are all improvised verses. The poet has to find a clever way to weave in the names of the families who have hired us for wedding celebrations,” says Souleyman. “The themes revolve of course around love, mainly lost love, and the other problems that life often brings along.”
Souleyman has brought his electronic Dabke all the way to national Syrian television, an honor that no other artist of this genre has yet enjoyed, he says. And thanks to the American label Sublime Frequencies, he has reached a much larger audience. “This has made us famous throughout the world! This is a massive surprise for us and we are happy that our music is heard all over the world.”
Nevertheless, Souleyman rarely gives concerts in Western countries. Berlin should consider itself lucky to receive the Syrian King of Dabke. People should be prepared for an experience that combines the raw energy of punk with the trance-inducing abandon of techno beats.
From an interview of the author with Omar Souleyman in August 2010.
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
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