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In Extremis

Syrian Soul Man Omar Souleyman Interviewed
Luke Turner , May 28th, 2009 10:00

The Quietus meets Omar Souleyman, wedding singer and the biggest popstar in Syria, on the Sublime Frequencies tour

During the course of The Quietus' interview with Omar Souleyman, he'll mutter darkly of legions of copyists, how his ambition to keep things new is what drives him forward, and that his collaborators must strive to keep up to his high standards. He's released getting on for 500 albums in the past 15 years. Sound familiar? There's certainly something of the Mark E Smith about Souleyman, who sits in the dark sunglasses that he's never seen without, moustache perfectly clipped. Souleyman is making his first trip outside the Middle East as part of a tour arranged by excellent US label Sublime Frequencies. His frantic and intense music (listen here) blends Syrian Dabke and Sha'abi with other Middle Eastern forms. Delivered through gurgling keyboards, Souleyman acts as the vocal conduit for the poetry of a group of lyrical collaborators. The excellent American label Sublime Frequencies (who released the superb Highway To Hassake Souleyman comp) has brought our man to Britain for his first UK tour.

The Quietus began by asking how this most prolific of musicians was finding his trip to Britain.

"We are very very happy to be here. The audiences have been great."

Does it feel good to bring this music to a new audience? What of it do you want to bring to a British audience?

"We want to bring the traditions and the music to you."

Is there a different response from the British crowd?

"Here the people dance, but over there people have a certain dance that they do where everyone is holding hands, it seems to be different styles of dancing."

It is hard to make British people hold hands sometimes. Was music always an important part of life when growing up?

"It was. In 1990 I was invited to sing at a party. I had never sung before, my parents didn't like me to sing. I was invited to parties from 1990 to 1994, and everyone told me I had to sing because my voice is nice. In 1994 the band started, and we set up an office. In the beginning we didn't write words, we'd sing traditional songs.

"I didn't go to school. When I was five I had an accident to my eye. I had to go to the doctors and hospitals, but I'd go to school and get dizzy. So I'd do any kind of work, selling things, or labouring."

Did music become like a job?

"In the beginning, my monetary state was very tired. But then in 1994 to 1996 it started coming in. After that, and in the last two years I have become famous. From 1994 to 2000 I was popular in the shops, but then in 2000 I made a video clip, and the Arab world started to notice. I've made five or six videos that are now on the TV. I sing clean lyrics, and words that affect people. When I sing sad songs, the people feel it. When I sing happy songs, the people feel happy.

"Even my stance on the stage is different from other musicians. I don't like to move, I don't dance. I don't go down off the stage. During a wedding, the people make a circle, holding hands. I stand in the middle, but I don't dance, my words and the music makes people dance.

"Before Razan worked with me, he worked with other people, but I asked him to join me. We're all very original, but everyone copies us – we don't copy anyone. We always want something new."

One of Souleyman's collaborators interjects

"Because we're working together, and keep going on, we're getting more famous, we're making Omar Souleyman more famous."

OS: "Razan composes the music, he records and distributes it. I've been working with five poets for short periods. The one who gives me the good words, I stick with."

Mahmood Harbi, he's one of the poets isn't he? We hear he smokes a lot...

"Yes he does!"

How does the dynamic work?

"We improvise at parties. We can be playing at a party, and playing something new, and I'll ask them to come up up with something for this, and we write a new song."

Is there rivalry between the different poets?

"Of course there's competition! There's always competition. If there wasn't, there would be no progress. All the poets want to give good words to me so they can be famous too. I work correctly, and anyone who works with me must work up to me. This is a certain type of music called sha'abi, which is folklore music. I have these songs that if I kept singing them all, it'd take more than a year. They're a folk style with new lyrics and new music."

There's a lot of electronic keyboard in your music, are there traditionalists who don't like this?

"There might be five out of the 100 who don't like it, but the new generation do. It's only the older, more traditional people who might not like it. With anything, there's going to be a percentage of people who don't like it."

How do the recordings themselves happen?

"They all happen at the weddings. There are very few studio sessions, they're recorded live. There are only about 20 recorded in a studio."

So the tapes capture the spirit of the party?

"We record them so it can be a memory for the bride and the family. We give the tapes to the bride and the people who attend the party buy the tape."

So are the songs written to specific people at the parties?

"Not all the words are, but we address certain people and we name someone there, saying so-and-so, son-of-so-and-so, and he'll go and buy the cassette afterwards."

That's a canny marketing ploy...

"If we don't name certain people, those people will get upset. People will come up to us and say you hurt us, because you didn't say our name."

Have people ever been offended by what you have said?

"We'd never say anything that's not nice."

As well as weddings, what other parties do you play?

"We do family functions, in halls like this with tables. We play Christian parties, Kurdish parties, Assyrian parties, we might just do half an hour or 40 minutes. There might be a guest from America or Canada, and they'll ask for Omar to come and play."

The music is influenced by lots of forms and styles from the region, is this important to them bring these different styles together?

"It's very important to us, it's part of our mission."

What will you take back from your tour here?

"We'll take back nice memories from Britain."

What about music? Have you heard anything you like?

"Most of the tour has been spent on the bus."

(much hilarity ensues at this evasive response, as the band have been introduced to the music of the Sublime Frequencies boss' own music)

"There are some people in Syria who listen to western Music. It's important to listen to many different kinds of music, even if I don't like it's important to me to listen to it and try and understand it."

The Sublime Frequencies tour is running now, and visits London tomorrow. Visit the tour website for more information