Omar Souleyman, who if all goes well will play the Poisson Rouge May 11, is a major musician. But the most remarkable thing about him isn’t his music. It’s his status as a Syrian refugee who got out before his homeland’s civil war became the tipping point of an international crisis. Far too cautious to voice political views insofar as he has any, he is nonetheless a vivid and visible embodiment of a culture that ought to unite all his homeland’s warring factions except the pseudo-puritanical ISIS nihilists who filled the vacuum created by Bashar al-Assad’s will to power.
Souleyman, who since 2011 has toured worldwide from his exile’s home in Turkey, has new music coming out on Diplo’s Mad Decent label June 2. As has been said about several past Souleyman albums, it’s somewhat more complex and filigreed than its predecessors. But as usual, it’s not all that filigreed. Instead the new development is that the last two songs of To Syria, With Love are his first two ever to reference Syria directly. The lyrics are in Arabic only, but translations are provided. From “Missing Al-Jazira” (his region of northwestern Syria, not the news agency): “When will our alienation end/So we can go back home?” From “Mawal”: “Being away from home/Is like having dust in the eyes/I walk and my heart/Feels dead among the dead.”
The fifty-year-old Souleyman began working as a wedding singer in 1994, and soon became a master of the ubiquitous, elastic Levantine genre called dabke, a word related to “foot-tapping” if that pins it down for you. He’s said to have released five hundred live tapes in the spare, beat-heavy, synth-driven style by the time he went international in 2007. The most compelling dabke I’ve heard is a 2012 compilation on Sham Palace called Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran, which includes no Souleyman. But in the Spotify age, assorted dabke from Palestine and Lebanon is there for the hearing, and Souleyman’s seven-album catalog cuts it all — it’s deeper, louder, more propulsive and muscular and miserable. Lyrically, Souleyman has only one subject: romantic love as ecstasy and tragedy, usually the latter. The emotional color of the political anguish he voices on the new album isn’t much different — barely different at all if you don’t know Arabic. Though the tempos of the two pertinent songs definitely set up camp toward the slow, grave end of his spectrum, these are songs not of protest but of heartbreak.
Nonetheless, Souleyman’s live shows are rousing affairs driven by a keyboard player — formerly Rizad Said, now the fancier but no less beatwise Hasan Alo. More imperious than impassioned, Souleyman paces the stage in sunglasses, white robe, and checked red hood. He claps his hands, snaps his fingers, bows, raises his hands, and throws the occasional air kiss as he emotes emotes emotes in a runaway power baritone punctuated with a rising “yeah” sound that’s his aural trademark. The first time I saw him he seemed slightly distracted — I even caught him checking his watch. The second he was much more into it, and it made a difference. But both times the Syrian tragedy was far more muted for American audiences than it has since become.
On May 11 the conflict will feel painfully desperate. And on May 11 Souleyman will have reached an American stage in the teeth of a newly brutalized immigration department. Even this past December, before Trump completed his coup and became ICE’s boss, Souleyman’s New Year’s show in Austin was a close call. This time his Turkish manager, Mina Tosti, will have to fight harder than ever to get him the work visa he long ago earned.
By all accounts, Tosti is a battler who’s very good at this part of her job. But check with the venue before you venture out to catch this concert. And if all goes well, clap like hell for Omar Souleyman — just for being there.