Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman has a new album out, Wenu Wenu, his first album produced specifically with a Western audience in mind. And he has been getting lots and lots of publicity.
In The Guardian. Where he says: "My music has no influences," and "I'm not into politics, I don't know any solution."
In Rolling Stone. Where Souleyman says "he's never felt pressure to join any political parties, or lend support to the government." And we learn that Syria dabke expert Shayna Silverstein
once went to a Souleyman show where a couple of concertgoers from Beirut, the cosmopolitan capital of Lebanon, crinkled their nose at the singer.
"They said, 'Oh, I don't understand why he is representing our culture. They should really invite Marcel Khalife'"...
In Spin, two articles.
The first calls Souleyman "[o]ne of the hottest stars of indie music," a quite remarkable designation, and one, the article underscores, which is quite unlikely. It goes on to say that, "Without a doubt, Omar Souleyman is the most popular Syrian wedding singer in the Western world. Beyond President Bashar al-Assad, he may be the next Syrian who an American music fan could name."
Souleyman calls attention to Syria's drastic water crisis, which played a major role in turning him into a musician: 'If the region hadn't fallen into a crippling drought, Souleyman might have remained a farmer. "It's a problem in the region," he says. "Even the wells have dried up and there are many issues with bringing water to people."'
On the paradox of Souleyman's success in the West: 'Zayid Al-Baghdadi, a criminal defense lawyer from Baghdad, says that neither he nor any of his Syrian friends had ever heard of Souleyman until he moved to Montreal. "When I first saw Omar perform here, I was just amazed by the cultural clash between him and the audience," he wrote via e-mail. "Here you have a middle-aged Arab man dressed in traditional bedouin clothing and a crowd of intoxicated, pot-smoking hipsters dancing frantically to his music. I think what has added to Omar's appeal in the West is the fact that his music has been slightly tweaked to better suit modern Western dance-music tastes."'
The other publicizes the release of the album and the video "Warni Warni," which really does kick ass.
Check out the two videos from the new release, "Warni Warni":
And "Wenu Wenu":
Both are great, but it may be that, as some observers claim, the sounds of the keyboards (which imitate the mijwiz, used in traditional dabke, may have been softened up to suit the Western ear.
Of course, Souleyman's arrival on the "indie" scene isn't brand new -- for instance, he played Glastonbury in 2011:
And Bonaroo the same year:
It also seems to be the case that Souleyman is not as apolitical as it seems. Check out this song he did in tribute to Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Asad.
Since it took me about 5 seconds to find this, you would imagine that at least one of the music journalists writing about Souleyman could have asked him about this song. I in no way want to trash Souleyman here for this recording, given that so many artists were forced to make such compromises (or felt they had to) in order to maintain their careers under Bashar's rule, but I do wonder why none of the journalists who have interviewed Souleyman bothered to do the research to find this, and ask the question.
The kind of "electronic dabke" produced by Souleyman is not unique to him alone, for there are a number of Syrians recording and performing in a similar vein. One who I particularly like is Saria al-Sawas, who I believe is better known in Syria and is more urbane than Souleyman.
Check out this video of her performing "Hajar" for a wedding (the bread and butter for such musicians):
If you like this one, go look for some more vids. There are lots out there. And also lots more of Omar Souleyman.