Omar Souleyman’s Rise to Indie-Hipster Semifame
July 26, 2009 § 14 Comments
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.
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.