Dabke is the foot-stomping dance music heard at weddings throughout much of the Middle East, and Omar Souleyman is its first international star. A former mason born in 1966, he only began his professional career in 1994, yet has emerged as the face of the mildly controversial and unexpected new sound of Syria. His group appeared on Sublime Frequencies’ tantalizing 2004 radio collage, I Remember Syria; the label’s Mark Gergis has subsequently cherry-picked from among hundreds of “cassettes of varying quality” for three compelling, Souleyman-centric compilations. All subtitled “Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria,” they represent the singer’s only releases outside the Middle East. He toured internationally for the first time last year, and it’s pure accident—though certainly fitting coincidence—that he’s making his first trip to the United States during our own wedding season.
Björk has described Souleyman’s sound to NPR as “Syrian techno,” which takes in the overdriven Arabic keyboards and looping rhythms deployed by his Korg-cranking keyboardist-composer, Rizan Sa’id. That description, however, downplays any appreciation of Souleyman’s authoritatively gruff yet often plaintive voice, along with the rich confluence of Iraqi, Kurdish, and Turkish traditional styles he absorbed growing up in Ra’s al-Ayn, a Syrian town in the northeastern region of Jazeera. Through a translator, Souleyman recently recalled listening to bozouki (a long-necked lute) and rebab (a single-stringed fiddle) improvisations as a child; he initially copied singer and rebab player Saad Harbawi before developing his own style, plucking Sa’id out of a local Kurdish combo in 1996 and electrifying his acoustic sound. He enjoyed his first hit that year with “Leh Jani” (“When I Found Out”), which also opens his first top-billing Sublime Frequencies release, 2007’s Highway to Hassake.
The singer embodies every TSA lackey’s nightmare in his ubiquitous aviator shades, red-checkered keffiyeh headdress, and trim yet fulsome ‘stache. He appears a little uncomfortable in videos depicting him in luxurious surroundings (bookings in Dubai and the Emirates are quickly multiplying), but this could be due to an emerging Syrian ambivalence about working-class dabke. Souleyman’s version is harder, faster, louder, and more thrillingly distorted than Syria’s many other dabke pros, yet he appears to be singlehandedly pulling the sound up the class ladder, out into the Gulf, and around the world. However, some Syrians complain that his backwater dabke is hardly representative of, or flattering to, a nation that has produced superb yet relatively unheralded talents such as Sabah Fakhri and George Wassouf.
The other side of this polarizing sound is rooted in Arabic music’s ataaba tradition of “plaints” or “dirges.” (“Atabat,” off Highway to Hassake, is an especially sultry, oud-driven tear-jerker.) Most of his material is developed onstage, with poets like frequent collaborator Mahmoud Harbi whispering lyrics directly into Souleyman’s ear. This raw spontaneity is captured on last year’s forward-looking Dabke 2020, which focuses on live recordings from the past decade or so; fast and slow Syrian-Arabic tunes translated as “I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands,” “Stab My Heart,” and “My Tears Will Make the Stones Cry” are found on Souleyman’s most recent career-spanning collection, Jazeera Nights. Whether pumping up the party with cries of “Yella!” (“Let’s go!”), shouting out hosts and record-company execs, or breaking your heart ataaba-style, the thing that makes him such a great soul man at the end of the day is the urgency of his delivery.
Before our Skype-cellular connection failed suddenly, I asked Souleyman to tell me who sang at his wedding. No one, he replied. “There was lots of drumming and wind instruments,” our translator relayed. “But no singers or keyboards.”
Omar Souleyman’s band performs with Tinariwen and Toubab Krewe at Central Park’s SummerStage on June 26, and at the Issue Project Room (in the Old American Can Factory Courtyard) on June 27