Omar Souleyman’s Rise to Indie-Hipster Semifame

July 26, 2009 § 14 Comments


The Rise

Omar Souleyman’s rise to Indie-Hipster semifame isn’t difficult to trace.

In 2006, Iraqi-American Mark Gergis (aka Porest) traveled to Syria for the umpteenth time on a mission — to sign a record contract with Souleyman, the Hassekeh-based Syrian musician whose music Gergis had heard (and loved) blaring from the ubiquitous music kiosks in Damascus. (See Gergis interview here.)

Gergis signed a contract with Souleyman and shortly after, the compilation “Highway to Hassake” was released in 2007 through the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies. Since then, Souleyman has completed his first European tour, gotten almost 400,000 hits on his YouTube video for “Leh Jani,” and released a second compilation album through Sublime Frequencies “Dabke 2020: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria.” Bjork also listed two of his tracks on her NPR playlist and rumor has it that there’s a collaboration with Damon Albarn on the horizon.

To say the least, this is a bizarre path to notoriety that very few (if any) Syrian musicians of Dabke fame have followed.

The Back-Story

To better understand the rarity of Souleyman’s busting onto the Indie scene, here’s a little context. Hassekeh is a predominantly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria where it is known for being, well, Kurdish. Hassekeh is pretty ethnically diverse, but many Kurds live under the radar in Syria, not possessing equal rights and many times forced to adopt Arab names purely to avoid attention. Still, the Kurdish identity in these towns remains strong and the Syrian government keeps a close eye on visiting foreigners and residents alike. Souleyman himself is not a Kurd, but according to Gergis, many of his musicians are. Nonetheless, ethnic origins usually prove to be an amalgam of sorts.

Since much of the Syrian East is Kurdish and far from the cultural metropolises of Damascus and Aleppo, Dabke music in the vein of Souleyman is often looked at as being “uncivilized” or simply gauche. In fact, anything or anyone that is from the countryside or “reef” is liable to be mocked by many Damascenes for a lack of refinement. Some of this mocking is merely in gest, but other remarks can indicate something deeper.

Just a glance at the comments on this YouTube video clip (in Arabic, but now disabled) from Deir ez-Zour singer Abdul Rizq al-Jabouri, show the type of classist sentiments that can be stirred up from a single clip. The title of the clip is “Come and look at this Donkey (Moron)!” and while the singer’s music video plays, the poster inserts sarcastic comments mocking him until the singer’s ersatz video set is crashed by a flock of sheep. The comments range from debasing the singer personally to insulting the backwardness of Deir ez-Zour.

This is not a complete analysis, but it’s an introduction to how many Syrians would view Souleyman. Now, I uncomfortably await how Souleyman’s music and person will be interpreted by the “West.” So far, the results are mixed.


Souleyman in the “West”

The Pitchfork review of Dabke 2020 gives an interesting though off-base description of Souleyman’s sound by calling it “wild, buzzing Arab New Wave.” It’s understandable that a Western review of Souleyman will interpret his music through a litany of musical movements which are more likely to resonate with a Pitchfork reader than a Syrian Souleyman fan, but some of the descriptors are unfortunate like, a “dust storm swirl of synthesizer.” While it’s not erroneous to interpret foreign music through your own set of musical references, it is an egregious misstep to incorporate Arab cliches in a review that is supposed to be complimentary.

Descriptors aside, it’s the reviewer’s last sentence that — though well-intentioned — is patronizing. He says that for Western listeners this CD is “a chance to know the music of a people [that] politics has long kept at arm’s length.” This is kinda like shipping a Bruce Springsteen compilation to Syria and saying, Behold the Music of America! (Or perhaps it’s the equivalent of taking some esoteric band and tagging it as the Music of America, considering that most Syrians have never heard of Omar Souleyman.)

Syria, just like America, has more than one “music” and Souleyman is just a fraction of it. Would the reviewer take an album from some British band and categorize it as “the music of a people”? Probably not. Yet because Omar Souleyman is from Syria — a mystical land of tribes and reed flutes where apparently people all join together and agree on a collective sound — it’s acceptable to make unfounded generalizations?

These types of statements compounded with a tendency for the “Western listener” to understand music on his/her terms and a refusal to accept that music can serve a variety of purposes in different cultures, makes me even more doubtful that music has the capacity to function as a “cultural bridge” of any sort. Listening to music for pure enjoyment is fine, but no one should claim that it brings them closer to understanding a culture.

Sublime Frequencies and the Half-Truths

As much as I respect Sublime Frequencies (the releaser of the Souleyman discs) for the cool work they do, I also resent the fact that music can be so far removed from its origins as to be stripped of that quality which made it interesting in the first place. Souleyman’s music is captivating not just for its sounds, but also because of the environment in which it was produced. Though Gergis and Sublime Frequencies have to some degree highlighted the origins of Souleyman’s music in a respectful way, I believe that a bit of the jargon surrounding the hype capitalizes on the “exoticism of the far East.”

Also, their portrayal of Souleyman is misleading. The blurb describing Souleyman on their website states point-blank, “Omar Souleyman is a Syrian musical legend,” yet at the end of the blurb they say that that Souleyman’s music was not deemed “serious enough for export by the Syrians.” Now, if this is their opinion — that Souleyman is a legend — then that’s fine, but if they purport this to be a widely-held belief among Syrians, then I reject this statement. To be honest, telling Souleyman’s actual story is probably far more interesting than some minor fictions.

Second to this is Souleyman’s image. I have no doubt that Souleyman’s image is totally genuine and not a construct of anyone but himself. Perhaps this is what makes him so appealing. Yet, intentional or not, I believe one reason why Souleyman has been able to break onto the “Western” scene is because of his “mysterious” look — sunglasses, thobe, kuffiyeh and a poet whispering lyrics in his ear during performances. There are dozens of Syrian Dabke singers whose music parallels the intensity of Souleyman’s, but perhaps they don’t encapsulate the “other” quite like him. Again, I don’t believe that Gergis or anyone tampered with Souleyman’s image to make him more alluring to a Western audience, but when I compare Souleyman alongside other Syrian and Iraqi artists, I understand how he stands out in a crowd and I understand how a Western audience, craving the undiscovered, would see/hear Souleyman and let their preconceptions do the rest.

Either way, for better or worse, Souleyman’s music is now gaining a wider audience and undoubtedly, some will deride that “crazyyy Arabic dancing lolzzzz,” while others will draw interesting comparisons like, “He is the Syrian equivalent to the New York 80s synth/vocal duo Suicide.”

To understand more about Souelyman’s music and lyrics, check out this translation of Souleyman’s song Khitaba (A Proposal) from my friend’s website, Arabic Music Translation.


§ 14 Responses to Omar Souleyman’s Rise to Indie-Hipster Semifame

  • ٪٪٪ says:

    Thanks for this article, it’s awesome to read something about a Sublime Frequencies artist that’s not just a paraphrasing of the (commonly flamboyant) liner notes.

    I’d like to point out that plenty of people might cite, for the UK, the Beatles (or if they know better, the Kinks) as nationally representative (pop) “music of the people.” Doing so would work not because there is universal agreement but because there’s a lot of agreement, and both bands are noteworthy for qualities which correspond to English values. Perhaps there is no Syrian equivalent — and if there is, obviously it isn’t Souleyman — but I’m sure there must be some Arabic examples of this sort of national pride in an artist (maybe Oum Kalthoum and Egypt?). I realize this is largely beside your point; it just had me thinking.

    I disagree with the assertion that there is a “tendency for the “Western listener” to understand music on his/her terms and [to refuse] to accept that music can serve a variety of purposes in different cultures…” In fact, I think that, in saying this, you’re resorting to a stereotype yourself — that of the poor, unenlightened western man unable to see simple truths through his rigid world of black and white distinctions. Afterall, everyone understands music on their “own terms.” Only by listening to more do they broaden those terms. Musical idioms open up to listeners a little like languages do — with repeated exposure and some unconscious assimilation of the patterns and forms. I wouldn’t call it a cultural bridge either, but I wouldn’t trivialize the phenomenon. In exchanges like that, sometimes the misunderstood parts are great.

    • arabicpress says:

      I agree with you on The Beatles/UK and Um Kulthoum/Egypt. My problem with the use of the term “music of a people” in the Pitchfork review is that you have this album from a Syrian artist put out by a western label and it’s probably (I’m assuming) the first Syrian artist reviewed by Pitchfork and the guy feels comfortable saying it is the “music of a people.” Now, there are probably many people who think Arabs just listen to what they describe as “crazy techno” all day.

      I like your second point. It would be a pretty complex operation to go inside someone’s head and understand how they interpret music and I shouldn’t assume it’s a monolithic process. I guess I’m looking at how people have expressed their understanding of Sulaiman’s music.

      I think it’s important to acknowledge that when SF releases an album, it’s wholly geared toward a “western” audience, many of whom look for experimental, edgy stuff BUT not that edgy. Here’s a small example of what I’m saying. SF probably would not release a collection composed solely of Sulaiman’s ataba-style music. There are not many people that want to listen to 45-minute long dirges in a language they can’t understand. My point is that the 4-7 minute long song format is familiar, so is the synth, so is the chorus structure. What happens when we take that away? We get music that might not be that appealing to a “western” audience. Isn’t this in a way listening to music on our own terms without even realizing it?

      That’s just a small fragment of what I was trying to get at.

  • ٪٪٪ says:

    Yes, it’s true that SF is a western label making releases for a western audience. Personally, Sublime Frequency fans I’ve known have been people who would jump at the chance to hear 45-minute dirges in a language they don’t understand — muso obsessives of the all-music-is-fascinating, leave nothing out type. But you’re probably right, I’m just not seeing a wide sample of listeners.

    If I understand correctly, you’re making a distinction between trying to take music for what it is, with a minimum of preconceptions (“their terms”) and trying to force it into a known framework (“own terms”). While it would be difficult for anyone to completely divest themselves of preconceptions (given that a lot of them aren’t particularly conscious or obvious), it’s true that many people are quite happy to never try.

    I have seen reactions to older Japanese pop-rock that essentially amount to mockery: listen to how little they understand our music! listen to all the things they get wrong! In other words, they see that it’s imitative of western pop, and then interpret all differences as silly failures. In truth, it’s fair to find some humor in it, but the humor exists only relative to the listener. The music is valid, as all music is imitative. Botched cultural cues aren’t really botched, they just no longer mean what they did for you.

    Souleyman’s music isn’t imitative of anything western, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find people who manage to see it that way (synthesizers in Syria!). You call some examples of this attitude patronizing; I agree. It’s worse than that, even, because there’s a subtext: “they don’t know what they’re doing, but we do.” Even though the exact opposite is what’s true.

  • arabicpress says:

    I think you’ve summed it up better than me.

  • Alan says:

    Thanks for your article, it’s nice to get an Arab perspective on Souleyman’s recent minor-fame in the west.

    I’d like to make a few points:

    Pitchfork isn’t really indicative of “Western listeners” viewpoints, and for that matter neither is Vice Magazine or The Wire. All these publications have been desperately playing catch up when it comes to recognising the important work that Sublime Frequencies have been doing for the past 5 years.

    Most of these magazines had barely made any mention of Souleyman until he started selling out venues across Europe earlier this year. The Western listeners, it seems, were capable of discovering and connecting with Souleyman’s music without the help of these clueless critics.

    The Wire, in particular, had been vocal critics of Sublime Frequencies for years, until finally coming around just in time for the UK tour this year. So to gauge the reaction of ‘Western listeners’ based solely on what a single critic has to say does us all a bit of a disservice. Especially when the critic you are citing is your typically clueless and sheltered Pitchfork hipster.

    I also can’t agree with your comments regarding the Sublime Frequencies label itself and I’ve got to wonder how much of the label’s work you are familiar with.

    “SF probably would not release a collection composed solely of Sulaiman’s ataba-style music. There are not many people that want to listen to 45-minute long dirges in a language they can’t understand.”

    Actually, Sublime Frequencies probably would release a compilation solely of his ataba-style music and it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. Not a lot of people want to listen to 40 minutes of insect noise, but that didn’t stop SF from releasing exactly that. A “45-minute long dirge” in a foreign language in all honestly wouldn’t stand out as particularly obscure or difficult among the rest of the Sublime Frequencies catalogue.

    “Now, if this is their opinion — that Souleyman is a legend — then that’s fine, but if they purport this to be a widely-held belief among Syrians, then I reject this statement.”

    As far as I am aware the label has always acknowledged that his music is considered uncultured and inferior by many in Syria, it says it right there in the blurb that you quote. But then they also seen how his name was whispered in hushed tones when they visited his hometown and how he was treated there with reverence and respect so I don’t think their comment is unfair or inaccurate.

    “There are dozens of Syrian Dabke singers whose music parallels the intensity of Souleyman’s, but perhaps they don’t encapsulate the “other” quite like him.”

    The story of how Souleyman was discovered is fairly well documented by now. On a visit to Syria, Mark Gergis kept hearing the same music blasting from cassette stands on his travels around Syria and upon further investigation he kept hearing the name Omar Souleyman coming up. So he bought as much of his music as he could and proposed releasing some of his music on the label. A second trip was arranged to locate him and after a few weeks searching, Souleyman happily agreed to have his music released via the label.

    There was no cynical discussion regarding which Dabke singer would appeal most to ‘the West’. He simply found someone whose music he liked, and asked if he could release his music. Thanks to Gergis, Omar Souleyman is now the only Dabke singer that western audiences are familiar with, but that’s one more Dabke singer than we knew 5 years ago. And that has to be applauded surely?

    • arabicpress says:

      I wouldn’t say I’m bringing forth an Arab perspective. I’m white and I live in Texas, I just speak Arabic and have lived in the Middle East for a while.

      I don’t think Pitchfork is entirely representative of “Western” viewpoints, but it does represent a certain subgroup of them. The Pitchfork review was clueless, but isn’t most of America clueless about Arabs and the numerous Arab cultures? That’s not talking down to America, but it’s a fact.

      I’m very familiar with SF and it’s possible they would release a CD of dirges. I concede. But I won’t concede on SF’s portrayal of Sulaiman, even in light of Alan Bishop’s comments below. This isn’t about political correctness, as he would have us believe, it’s about acknowledging the state of the world in which we live. We don’t exist in a world free of cultural “imperialism” or actual imperialism. It’s odd to me that Bishop, who seemingly has had many dinners with the “unknowable others”, could so willingly ignore the political aspect to his actions.

      I’m left with more questions than answers. Why does Bishop frame SF’s work like he’s performing a service to both a Western audience and the performer? Are these artists to measure their worth based upon whether or not they are fondly received in the “West”? Why does Bishop not recognize that in order for these new artists to fit into this new “Western” music bureaucracy of labels and copyrighting (there is no formal copyright system in Syria) that the artist might have to leave his conceptions of the role of music behind and adopt “Western” ones?

      This differs from culture to culture, but I will speak about an Arab example. One of the major labels in Arab society is Rotana. They market cheesy pop music and do joint-marketing with Pepsi. This only represents a slice of music in Arab countries, but this label-model was adopted from the West. Now, on the other hand, you have street vendors and small labels who mostly record music and distribute them. I do not believe they hold any “rights” to this music, but they do normally record a message the beginning of the CD explaining where the CD came from. Now, my question is this: what happens when the small street labels start looking at marketing music as a fruitful enterprise? What happens when their conceptions of music are transformed to a copyright-based mentality?

      Whether this is a negative thing or not, I don’t know, but I do know that individuals like Bishop and Gergis who operate in different cultures are imposing their viewpoints and systems on the groups that they sign. Surely, this is with the consent of the musicians. I just would like acknowledgment that SF doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Their actions, even though small-scale, do have actual effects on the local cultures that they enter.

      That was a bit off-topic, but it summarizes one of the reasons I’m hesitant to jump on the SF bandwagon.

  • Alan says:

    Just as a quick addendum, here are some words from Alan Bishop, the man behind Sublime Frequencies, answering the label’s critics. This quote doesn’t particularly apply to this article, but it does help to clarify the label’s intent:

    “Still, I would argue on their [SF’s critics] behalf that they should say whatever they feel they need to say, because if our label has accomplished one thing, it is that we’ve opened the gates to the discussion and appreciation of the music from overlooked areas of the globe on a much wider scale than before. And we have taken the topic outside the exclusive halls of academia and dumped it into other markets of the Western world.

    We knew we’d have to deal with some of this type of criticism for what we are doing, but we also knew the positives far outweigh the negatives, and no one else is apparently willing to take those necessary risks to accomplish the end-result of promoting and releasing ignored cultural/musical genius from North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, which is what matters most. We prefer to focus on the positives and continue to work at removing the negatives.

    What some critics of the Sublime Frequencies aesthetic seem to forget is that we are not representing anything or anyone, nor do we claim to. We are not a publicly-funded organization with obligations to constituents, nor are we interested in networking to influence or interact with the powers of media and entertainment. We work with what we have available, are a private self-financed entity, and are more interested in the actual music we release than some critics seem to be; if they were, they would be actively engaged in discussion of that music, but instead prefer to comment endlessly about our aesthetic of presentation or question our methods of operation and documentation.

    To the peddlers of high brow, it’s all about style, method, economics, and trend. But there are no sacred species of human and there is no music off-limits to expansion, manipulation or exposure. The Wire is functioning as a vehicle of industry fringe management. All those trust-fund academic clowns are tip-toeing around trying not to offend “the unknowable other,” waving the holy croquet mallet of institutionalized political correctness as if it was Hendrix’s “freak flag high.”

    I know the “unknowable others” Chris Bohn speaks of – all of them, personally; I stay with them, eat their food, drink their tea, share stories and opinions with them, watch their kids grow up, and have spent intermittently what amounts to years of my life with them. They are regular people like we are. They are not aliens from another dimension. They want their music spread around and heard outside their locales in any possible way we can get it done without having to go through the rectal funnel that major record labels, IPR lawyers, academia, media, international foundations, and their own governments have been ever so corrupt and hypocritical to very selectively offer with strings, rope, barbed-wire, bombs, poverty, political agendas, wars, and genocides so firmly attached. That’s the majority demand from the heart of the “unknowable others”; that’s how it is. We receive only positive support from the areas we work in. The negative reactions all stem from the politically correct crowd in the West, because they’ve been engineered to think that way.

    Maybe we’re crazy to spend our own money to promote this music to the world when all others have failed to recognize it or respect it; even their own local music industries have abandoned it for newer, more popular trends and usually can’t be bothered when approached for help with licensing, ideas for releases, or other potential projects. But the overwhelming support and positive reaction has been what keeps us active and spending our time and resources to continue the label. A major reason why others aren’t doing this is because it takes a massive amount of energy and the risk of financial loss. Most importantly, it takes the obsession with and love for the music, people, and cultures affiliated.

    Some dolts actually think Sublime Frequencies is a money-making machine “cleaning-up and taking advantage of poor innocent cultures that can’t fend for themselves, therefore needing some international representation to fight for their property rights against the mighty Sun City Cannibals.” It’s so laughable; if they only knew. I’d like to witness some of these “do it my way” critics starting up a label for a while and to do it their way just to see what their threshold of financial loss would be. Ours is 31 releases and counting.”

  • Tariq Hulou says:

    I’m Syrian and from Aleppo. Regarding the views of city folk towards the rural areas, though your average city person would likely crack a joke on the latter’s behalf, the opposite is true as well. Anyway, this is a society that doesn’t take political correctness too seriously, and we’ve still managed to get along for hundreds, if not thousands of years. What mix of a ethnic groups around the world, so called countries, such as Syria is, can say that?

  • Asala Nasri says:

    Im sure youll reach so many people with what youve got to say.

  • Tamara says:

    I just want to applaud you for an excellent article (and thought-provoking comments as well) that bring up important issues for consideration. I’m a graduate student in ethnomusicology doing research on Souleyman and am fascinated by these conversations and by the position taken by SF. I understand some of SF reservations about academic ethnomusicology (some of which I agree with) but I also see his end of the spectrum as, like you point out, not taking into consideration issues of power and economy; something anthropologists turned to when they turned away from the concept of “culture.” These days in ethnomusicology and anthropology, “culture” is practically a dirty word. As Peter Manuel, an ethnomusicologist of popular music says, “There are no masses, only ways of thinking of people as masses,” we could consider that “culture” is not the only framework we need to challenge. When we consider power structure, then we really need to ask, “CAN this music speak for itself?” And to whom? And for what purposes? All of this makes me ask, “what is the end goal of these releases? Education? Humanization? Depoliticization?” I will follow the links you have listed above. I’d also like to get a better idea of your discussion on The Wire critiquing SF. If you have any links or articles handy to send along, I’d appreciate pointers on where to begin.

  • arabicpress says:

    Thanks, Tamara. I wrote this article in Arab Media & Society that goes into more detail about Souleyman when I met him at a show in Philadelphia.

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