Look at Omar in his sheer white body-length jellabiya and gingham keffiya, with his Arab hitman shades and AoE tache, looking like a flesh and blood version of Sheik Yerbouti’s Yahoo Avatar; Omar the hillbilly from Hicksville, Syria, who sings with a voice like a chainsaw and has taken old music and mashed it into a buzzing bleeping thumping mess. Or a raw zinging breeze of newness and honesty. Take your pick. Take sides. Listen to Omar and believe me, you won’t be sitting on the fence for long.
Omar Souleyman is a magnet for controversy, for virgin wonder, loud guffaws, unwary bafflement and clandestine giggles, for the incredulous anger of cultural elites or the amazed delight of unsuspecting hipsters from Frisco to Frankfurt on the Oder. To the hip he’s an adorable techno-naif, a strange apparition from another world, an Arab trance-merchant with a spiky sound, whose music cruises and cavorts with grit, hedonism, impossible scales and vertiginous beats. For them, the very fact of his improbable existence is already half the charm. To certain culturati however, especially the nomenklatura of Syria’s cultural community and some more conservatively minded ‘world music’ folk in the west, Omar Souleyman smacks of gross cultural misappropriation, a kind of conspiracy of trash. I mean, is he and are his backers at the Sublime Frequencies label just taking the piss, demoniacally sucking the gullible into a great cross-cultural pop-art happening, like Syria’s answer to Malcolm McLaren or the KLF?
Step No 1: invent some shite tinny keyboard pop muzak. Step 2: Get a couple of mates to form a super-cheap touring unit. Step 3: Foist your artless head-banging fizz on the world like it’s the new dawn of popular Syrian music, making sure you concentrate your fire on clueless young technoheads and audio-exotica freaks. Step 4: Pick up a few A-list endorsements from Bjork and Damon Albarn along the way. Step 5: Travel the world, play all the festivals that matter (Glastonbury, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Sonar, Central Park Summerstage, Eurockéenes de Belfort etc) and belly laugh indecently whilst fingering the greenbacks. Sounds just too evil to be true, doesn’t it?
When Omar Souleyman is lead into a quiet bell tent backstage at the Shambala Festival for our interview, he doesn’t look or act like the Johnny Sauron of Middle Eastern pop. In fact he’s quite the opposite. Small, wiry with smooth healthy skin and intelligent eyes hovering behind those iconic aviator shades, his manner is neat, polite and at times almost taciturn, perhaps due to the drag of having to talk through a translator.
At the end of the interview, after a brief absence, Omar bursts back into the tent where his keyboardist Rizan Sa’id and I are stitching together a conversation about home studios out of scraps of broken English and evening-school Arabic, and clambers under the covers of the tent’s blow-up bed, shivering. The damp chill of a cloudless late summer’s night in Northamptonshire is seeping into his bones. “Back home we have similar weather,” he tells me earlier. “But only in winter. Right now the daytime temperature is 42C. In three months time it’ll be down to zero.” Rasha, our translator, comes in with a poo-brown hippy jacket and Omar dons it gratefully over his white jellabiya. I notice a stove in a corner and suggest that we brew up some tea. We light both burners and Omar huddles next to me, rubbing his hands over the calor gas flames and blowing into them with satisfaction. As he settles into his comfort zone, Omar exudes a kind of unfazed toughness, as if he’s huddled round a precious source of warmth in this way a million times before, routinely, without complaint, like a trooper.
“That’s what Omar is; a trooper,” Mark Gergis, the man who brought Omar Souleyman out of Syria and onto the world stage, confirms over the phone a week later. “People work really really hard where he’s from and they age very quickly. I’ve seen it first hand. It’s not an easy life in those villages in the Jazeera.” The Jazeera, (‘The Island’), is Syria’s very own ‘Midwest’, its farming belt, tucked far away in the far north eastern corner of the country like an ugly but useful tool hidden away in a broom cupboard. Turkey and Iraq are just over the border. Damascus, and all its glittering urban sophistication, is a 12-hour bus drive away. The land is flat, dusty and overexploited. The Khabour river, which makes it into the Bible as ‘The Habor’ (check 2 Kings 17:6), is drying up. So are jobs in agriculture. It used to be the country’s breadbasket. Now it’s turning into a rural basket case. It hasn’t rained properly for a decade. “Next to Tell Amir, the village where I was born, there’s a river,” Omar told me. “It’s been dry for ten years. I always used to go there and fish when I was kid, or just sit and pass the day. It used to be beautiful in the springtime.”
Omar Souleyman’s home territory is as far off the tourist trail as you can possibly imagine. The only foreigners who go there are either archaeologists who have come to drool over the three thousand year old ‘tells’, or prehistoric man-made mounds that dot this big country, or the odd music producer in search of his grail. Yes, very odd indeed. Cue Mark Gergis, a tall dark music fan of Iraqi descent, resident in San Francisco, who has played in countless punk / noise / art / musical theatre combos (Mono Pause, Neung Phak, Lord Chord, Porest) and spent years indulging his wayward passion for hunting down arcane global pop, mostly on cassette, in the public libraries, South East Asian and Middle Eastern emporia of the West Coast and Detroit, where most of his Iraqi family are based.
In 1997 Gergis decided to take his first trip outside of the USA and opted for Syria “because it seemed like the last bastion in the Middle East of the old Arab World.” There he kept hearing this fast, ferocious and wildly electronic form of ‘dabke’ music blaring from cassette kiosks and taxi stereos. Dabke is the universal foot stomping, line-dancing, shut-up-and-boogie pop beat of the Middle East, as lowbrow and unpretentious as you can possibly get. There’s no equivalent to it in England, because it’s a genuinely traditional, yet living and ubiquitous dance form, invented, so they say, centuries ago by villagers who had to pound down earthenware roofs to make them solid and watertight. If the English hadn’t consigned Morris dancing to the attic of shame and embarrassment, then we might have kept something similar in our culture. When I voice this conjecture to Omar Souleyman his response is unequivocal; “Well people in your country should dance the traditional music. Folk music is heritage. If you loose it, you loose your soul.”
Check the dabke action on You Tube and you’ll see it in all its graceful and gaudy settings. Young dudes in football shirts, fat middle-aged men in suits and ties, prim traditional dance troupes in the threads of yesteryear, old men and women in jellabiyas and head-dresses, young girls in skin-tight jeans or multi-coloured robes, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Egyptians, all dancing the dabke, in a line, holding hands, laughing, together. It may be embarrassingly naff to some, but it’s the musical heart and soul of a people, the unselfconscious sap and resin of family and community life.
“I was very familiar with dabke music and I was still learning a lot about it, as well as choubi music which is the equivalent in Iraq,” Gergis recalls. “But never before had I heard such a sound, that frenetic, that raw, that fast. It really grabbed me. And every time I would ask, “who is this?” the same answer would come back; Omar Souleyman.”
Gergis’ discovery wasn’t just a haphazard bolt from the blue. It was the resolution of a quest. “For years I’d been searching for rawer and more powerful Arabic music than that in my dad’s record collection. I went through the whole belly dance thing and then tried to get into rai. They were promoting rai as being very raw and kind of punk, but although I liked it, it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. But that Jazeera sound was wild. It just seemed like a punk version of the other dabke that I was hearing.”
Gergis made a second trip to Syria in 2000, with is brother Eric, and this time he left the tourist trail and travelled by bus to Al Hassakeh, one of the main towns in the Jazeera and main home of Omar Souleyman. “It’s so far, that Damascus considers it almost Iraq. It’s just another world. There’s that older village mentality there. The accent that Omar speaks is very close to the Iraqi accent my family have. Talking to Omar is sort of like speaking to my Iraqi grandfather.”
Al Hassakeh is a concrete work-a-day town. Its colour comes from the variety of its inhabitants: Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Iraqis, Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Chaldeans, Yazidi, Armenians, Alaouis. The streets and markets are thronged by old women with facial tattoos, Christian Assyrians wearing ridiculously over-sized crosses round their necks, Arab men in their traditional keffiyas and jellabiyas, women with and without head-scarves and traditional tribal threads of every kind. The area reminds you of Syria and the Levant’s true mongrel character, a rich and fecund mix that racial and religious pedants and purists of all kinds would dearly love to unravel.
I ask Omar if all these different ethnicities manage to coexist peacefully back home. “I have all sorts of friends, Christians and Kurds,” he answers. “My two band members, Rizan and Ali are Kurds. I am an Arab. On the last tour we had a poet with us, and he was Christian.”
There has been inter-ethnic conflict in the Jazeera, most notably in March 2004 when a Kurdish ‘intifada’ broke out after a football match in the city of Al-Qamishli. Apparently the Kurds in the stands were chanting the praises of Talabani, Barzani and George Bush Jr and the Arabs countered with pro-Saddam hollers. It all became nasty. Tanks rolled in. Syrian security forces opened fire on Kurds during the annual celebrations of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, in Al Raqqah as recently as this year.
But that’s the big picture. I have no problem believing that street-level ethnic harmony prevails in and around Al Hassakeh. Omar himself was born in an Arab family in the Jazeera village of Tell Amir and grew up listening to Iraqi pop from the 1950s onwards, especially the pop dabke and choubi of the 70s and 80s. A name he cites readily in our interview is that of the singer and rabab (traditional violin) player Saad Harbawi. A serious motorbike accident in his early teens damaged his eyes, which is why he’s rarely seen without his shades. In his late teens, Omar became a labourer. “What kind of labouring?” I asked. “Anything,” he answered. Music was just a hobby until the mid 1990s, when Omar was in his late 20s. His roughneck holler earned him a local reputation as a wedding-performer and he started singing professionally. His family disapproved but that’s par for the course in the Middle East.
At around this time Souleyman started working with keyboardist Rizan Sa’id and saz player Ali Shaker, both of who still accompany him. Rizan is a whizz-kid on the Korg and a reputable record producer, credited with inventing the new, edgier, harder form of dabke that emerged from the Jazeera in the mid 1990s. He has produced hits for dabke and Syrian pop megastars like George Wassouf and Shari Al Fawaz and worked for Syrian TV. Munching Kettle crisps from a large black bag, Rizan tells me all about his home studio in Al Hassakeh where he produces much of Omar Souleyman’s output, and that of many other local stars whose names he reels off with his quick, intelligent and self-confident manner. I can’t remember any of them. On stage, Rizan twiddles knobs, punches programmes, flicks out melodies like a virtuoso.
Early promo literature in the west made great play of the fact that Souleyman has released over 500 cassettes in Syria…but this of course is just floating hyperbole. Eighty percent of those releases are recordings made at weddings and presented to the married couple like a kind of aural photo album of their blissful day. Copies are copied and recopied and sold at local kiosks. The turn over is relentless. Every time Gergis went back to Syria he found that his favourite Souleyman tunes were already dépassé. “He’s a little surprised that people like his old music,” Gergis tells me. “But then again, ‘old’ is last year.”
When Gergis finally tracked Omar Souleyman down in 2006 and secured an agreement to release a compilation of his music on the Sublime Frequencies label, Souleyman was already a rising star in the Arab world, thanks to the success of his 2005 hit ‘Khataba’ (‘The Proposal’) and its lusciously sensual video clip on You Tube. He was being booked for residencies in Damascene nightclubs, and for weddings and parties in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Gergis proposed a new adventure in Europe and North America, and Souleyman agreed. Sublime Frequencies have released three CDs to date (‘Highway to Hassake’ 2006, ‘Dabke 2020’ 2009 and ‘Jazeera Nights’ 2010). As Souleyman started to bewitch the west, word of his success seeped back to Syria through the digital ether. The reaction in some quarters was pure horror.
The following comes from a Syrian music promoter and journalist friend of mine: “I’m a great defender of chaabi or popular music. However, Omar is a very bad singer. And it’s a real shame that he got lucky. This isn’t a social judgment; this is an artistic opinion, especially when Al Jazeera is full of amazing popular singers, like Ibrahim Keivo for example. In terms of chaabi music (like really taxi music), I am a fan of Wafik Habib from the coast. And the biggest star of the country is, of course, Ali Al Dik. Omar’s music is offending to the local musicians especially when it is presented in international festivals as Syrian music. No one knows him here, apart from maybe some truck drivers from the north. It is just horrible music, with stupid lyrics. But I understand that western audiences might find it ‘cool’ because it is kitsch, and because of his funny look. I don’t think the people of Sublime Frequencies would be interested in these great singers (Ibrahim Keivo and Wafik Habib). It is more commercial to present a bad and kitsch singer as the Syrian sound!!”
I read this passage to Mark Gergis and he returns fire as follows: “Well, yeah, once again…confirmed. The lines between high art and pop culture are drawn pretty deeply in the Arab world. Omar has become the most successful export in the history of Syrian music, as it’s perceived in the rest of the world. There’s never been a dabke artist or a Syrian, much less anyone from the Jazeera, that’s ever made it out and toured like this in the west. People are either very entertained or angry or puzzled by it. But we’re really happy and of course he’s really happy.” Gergis goes on to elaborate a theory that Syria, post the death of old man Hafez Al Assad and through the current reign of his son Bashir is going through a kind of perestroika period, an opening up both internally and externally and that consequently the intelligentsia of the country are particularly touchy about Syria’s image abroad and concerned that the right music should be allowed to represent the country on the international stage. Omar is obviously far from being the cultural ambassador they had in mind.
Omar himself gives the impression of not giving a pair of rodents about the controversies raging around him. “There are very few people who get away from their heritage with that snobbish attitude,” he says. “Everyone can have their opinion, but if they think that, they’re wrong. For example, in our country, the soap operas are very popular and very folky.” Apparently, a soap called ‘Bab El Hara’ (‘The Neighbourhood Gate’) is the big hit of the moment back home. It’s set in a bygone time of sure and solid values, when men were men and women were women. People love it and even ignored a live TV speech by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah and a kind of political deity in Syria, to watch the soap en masse during a recent Ramadan broadcast.
TV Soaps, dancing, glamour, good times, solid old-time values, the neighbourhood, truckers, taxi-drivers, human frailty; Welcome to modern Syria, welcome to life the world over. I find it frustrating that artists like Omar Souleyman generate so much guff in the circles of the learned about ‘the unknowable other’, legitimacy, cultural contextualism, tradition, modernity, misappropriation, this schism, that ism. The real wonder of someone like Omar Souleyman, and the place he comes from, isn’t how different or ‘other’ it is to world we know, but how bloody similar it is, how universal fundamental human tragedy and human farce really is. Musicians the world over share a common dream: to play the music they love to as many people as possible as often as possible. And who cares if their away audiences don’t ‘understand’ them, or speak their language, or are conversant with 3000 years of their history, or haven’t read any ethnomusicological treatises about their traditions and just content themselves with head banging gracelessly to their music with the purest kind of appreciation in their hearts: simple wonder and love. As if some sorry youth in the barrios of Al Hassakeh needs to know anything at all about the history of Black America, the migration north from the rural south, the Detroit car industry, gospel music, slavery and all that jazz to appreciate ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson. If you decide to delve deeper and explore the contexts of the music you love then good for you, but don’t lambast others for not spending their time in the same way.
I love Omar Souleyman’s music. Ok, I don’t know what he’s singing about and his lyrical talents might well be a joke for all I know. The fact that he regularly appears with a chain-smoking poet called Mahmoud Harbi who stands on stage whispering sweet prompts into Omar’s ear, Cyrano de Bergerac style, possibly confirms this doubt. Suffice to say that the songs apparently stumble through a Technicolor landscape of beautiful wenches, dodgy wedding deals, adultery, love, hate, frustration, sexual or otherwise, and the occasional paean to Assad father and son. But like Gergis, like Bjork, like Albarn and all those other trance-heads out there, I’m touched by the frenzy, the raw honesty of it all, the lack of polish and restraint, the dazzling lamé virtuosity, the heart-wrenching ‘mawwal’ intros and the pounding dabke fever. I love the fact that Omar Souleyman isn’t a spruced-up grinning entertainer, like Wafik Habib or Ali Al Dik, notwithstanding their possibly superior vocal skills. He’s a tough reserved biker boy from a hard place. Like Gene Vincent, Dee Dee Ramone or Iggy Pop. And I don’t need to know a single solitary fact about him to appreciate that spirit in him.
And anybody who thinks that Sublime Frequencies are making millions off the back of the people like Omar Souleyman is a fool who doesn’t know the realities of that independent and passionate basement floor of the music industry which the label inhabits. I’d be surprised if they make enough to run an office, pay a few people a living wage and keep releasing the music they love. But I believe they’ve understood something fundamental, and it’s all about trust and faith. The truth is that many western music labels and producers who seek out talent in continents other than their own have lost their faith in the ability of local people to produce music of quality, worth and international potential themselves, in situ. Apparently, they had that ability some time ago, in the 50s, 60s and 70s when stunning gorgeous music was recorded by local musicians, engineers and producers in local studios in places like The Congo, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, South Africa etc etc. But that ability was garroted, so the theory goes, by piracy, shrinking production budgets and the Darwinian obliteration of ‘real’ instruments by cheap keyboards and synths. There’s some truth in that, no doubt, but it ignores the fact that modernity is a creative challenge the world over, and Africans, Arabs, Asians etc must rise to it just as we in the west have had to. And if part of that necessary reinterpretation of older music requires somebody like Rizan to sit down in their home studio in some forgotten burgh in the outer reaches of an African, Asian or Middle Eastern country and tinkle on a Korg synth and a drum machine until something raw, vital and butt-kicking begins to appear, then producers in the west need to have some kind of faith in that process, or a curiosity at least. Sublime Frequencies seems to have that faith, and that’s why they deserve respect.
And in any case, one should never dismiss trash, however you define it. High art needs trash in order to boost its energy levels. Shakespeare, Dickens, Bartok and Joyce all understood that very well. Like the guys from Sublime Frequencies, I’m constantly surprised by the energy and quality of invention of the music on cheap and tacky cassettes, with zero production values, which I find in the souks of the world. We’ve got to trust the people who make that music and trust their way of making it, people like Omar, Rizan and Ali Shaker. Maybe they need a little more rope, a few hours in better studios and mastering rooms, the use of slightly better gear. But essentially they’re doing their thing, stumbling forward into a dangerous future, like the rest of us, and we should be listening. Believe me, the ‘unknowable other’ is.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2010
First published in The Independent – Oct 2010