(Wrote this a few months ago but wasn’t published as intended)
We tend to think we are passionate music fans. We think we give it all at shows and we live music the most in this part of the world; specifically in Mexico and Latin America we get told again and again that the crowds here go wilder than anywhere else. While this assertion is very subjective, there’s a part of the world where music fandom is something of a religious experience, in its purest and most positive way.
The arab world in the Middle East is something completely different in terms of passion for music. When Oum Kalthoum, the biggest Egyptian singer of the 20th century died, four million of her countrymen took to the streets to attend the funeral; most recently, Lebanese singer Fairuz played in Damascus, Syria in 2008 after 20 years of not visiting the neighbor country, the days leading to her show saw services in mosques stopping and programming in all radio stations (public and commercial) changing to play her repertoire. It is said that during Kalthoum’s heyday, she would play four or five straight hours and the crowds would grow louder and more ecstatic as she sang phrases of love gained and lost over and over again, whipping the crowd into a bigger frenzy.
This is the world that spawned Omar Souleyman.
Souleyman was born in the rural town of Ra’s Al-Ayn (due to the war and terror currently sweeping Syria, he and his family have relocated to Turkey). In 1994 he began singing in weddings playing dabke, a sort of group dance music for celebratory occasions. He soon started drawing from other types of music from Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and others to make his own style.
He assembled a band that has been with him since his wedding singer days, honing their style on traditional instruments but gradually incorporating synths and drum machines that allows a very crude, rough sound that yields euphoric results due to the high tempos and shrill textures. He’s usually joined onstage by a poet who whispers verses to Omar’s ear in order to improvise longer versions of his songs to get the crowd going wilder.
When he started, Souleyman would record his performance at weddings and gift the couple with a copy. Soon, his tapes were dubbed and sold at many kiosks and flea markets across his home country and other places, propelling him to become one of the biggest artists of the region. It is calculated that he has made close to 500 releases, most of them live documents. Sublime Frequencies, the label started by former Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop, gathered many of these recordings and have released them in various formats, introducing Omar to the West. Since then, he has played everywhere from punk-centric Chaos In Tejas fest to Glastonbury to Mexico’s Aural to the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. He has done remixes for Björk, and most notably, had Kieran “Four Tet” Hebden produce his latest album Wenu Wenu, the first to be mostly a studio affair.
There’s a passion that’s difficult to pin down when listening to the music made by Omar Souleyman, there’s something different about the sounds, notes and rhythms used in his music that makes it seem different. Yet, everything is done in such a celebratory way that it’s difficult to resist such allure to lose your mind to music made with love and devotion like few can experience in life.