Omar Souleyman is a wedding singer from Ras Al Ain, located in northeastern Syria near the Iraqi and Turkish border. His success in the west is unparalleled. He has over 500 releases to his name in his native Syria, mostly on cassette, and mostly recorded live during his performances at weddings. Yet he was virtually unknown in the West until Mark Gergis, a California-based musician, heard one of the cassettes on a trip to Syria, and started collecting them, taking his music back to Sublime Frequencies who subsequently released Highway to Hassake. He has since released four more albums in the West, collaborated with Bjork and toured the world, even coming to Australia a couple of years back with some incendiary performances, one of which at the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne contributed a track to his recent Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts (Sublime Frequencies).
Given the unstable and uncertain state in Syria currently this interview was conducted via email.
Bob: Are you currently living in Syria? What is the situation like for you, your family and friends?
Omar: There is great unrest here in Syria, however I took my family to the village, where it is calm and quiet. We will stay here until the troubles end and we can get back to resume our lifes peacefully.
Bob: I saw you play at Womadelaide on your last tour and people, including me were going crazy and dancing during your set. Were you surprised by Australian audiences reaction to your music?
Omar: I was very surprised by the audience’ reaction to the music. An incredible joy streamed through me and I also felt so proud that these people, who don’t understand the words I am singing, were still touched by their meaning, their power and their genuine feeling, so that they moved and danced. It was a stunning concert and I am looking forward to performing in Australia again.
Bob: When I spoke to you last tine, you told me that your music is influenced by a number of types of folk music like choubi, chewali, Turkish and kurdish music, how did you develop an interest in these styles, and what made you decide to combine them?
Omar: I live in a place in Syria, located very close to the Turkish and Iraqi border. There are Muslims here, Christians, Assyrians, a mixture of peoples and beliefs. So this place, so heavily influenced by the different people living in it or passing through it on their travels, is a fertile ground for my music and these different influences that shape my place also shape my music.
Bob: Do you still play weddings? If so how does it compare to playing to adoring crowds in far off lands like Australia?
Omar: I still play weddings. I love to do that, I love the atmosphere at weddings. In our part of the world, weddings are very, very long. I sing for hours and the people attending the wedding all dance. Old and young. When I see that people forget everything and just move ecstatically then I don’t feel the strain of such a long performance anymore. It is similar when I play abroad. I burst with joy when I see that my music affects the people and they forget themselves, forget the language barriers and surrender to the rhythm.
Bob: How did you and Rizan meet? How do you work together? And what do you think continues to make it interesting for you?
Omar: I know Rizan since he was a child. He lives in my hometown. He started playing music from the age of seven and soon became a professional. We work very closely together. We meet in the studio, talk and improvise. Mine are the words, his is the melody. We have come very close professionally in these past years, I understand him very well, and vice versa. It is indispensable for me to have Rizan with me on the stage. We are so attuned to each other that we understand each other from a single glance.
Bob: I understand that you started singing professionally at the age of 30. That seems quite late. What prompted this desire to sing?
Omar: It was the people around me who encouraged me to become a professional singer. They liked my voice (and I thank God for this precious gift) and asked me to perform for them time and time again. I started to play weddings and record cassettes and very quickly my reputation spread and I was contacted throughout Syria, later also from Turkey and the Arabic World to come and sing.
Bob: You are very much the front man, revving up the crowd and getting them excited. When you would come to my side of the stage when I saw you perform I would start screaming. I didn’ even know why. Can you talk a little bit about what you see your role as when playing live?
Omar: I want to see the audience move, I want to see the rhythm affecting them and taking over bit by bit. I love it when I can make people react this way and I feel defeated when I don’t succeed in that.
Bob: What are your hopes for the future? Is there anything you would like to do with your music that you haven’ done yet?
Omar: I have many new projects in mind. It is my vocation to keep looking for rhythms that make people dance. I can’t wait to get back to the studio as soon as my country finds peace inshallah.
Bob: What music do you enjoy listening to? And are there any interesting musicians you think I should know about?
Omar: When I perform I like quick rhythms that make people dance. When I am alone I listen to calm, slow and quiet music, above all Oum Kalthoum, the star of the Orient and her eternal music.
Consume presents direct from Syria:
OMAR SOULEYMAN Australis 2012
WED 5 DEC Melbourne THE HIFI
Plus CUMBIA COSMONAUTS, CHILDREN OF THE WAVE & MONDO LOCO DJ
Tickets from www.thehifi.com.au, ph 1300THEHIFI, Polyester Records – CBD & Fitzroy, Sight n Sound – Northcote & Boronia.
THUR 6 DEC Sydney OXFORD ART FACTORY
Plus RICHARD IN MY MIND DUO & HONKY KONG DJ.
FRI 7 DEC Meredith MEREDITH MUSIC FESTIVAL
SAT 8 DEC Brisbane QUEENSLAND ART GALLERY – APT 7
FREE ENTRY please see the gallery for details.
SUN 9 DEC Brisbane BRISBANE POWERHOUSE
Plus HONKY KONG DJ
FREE ENTRY please see the venue for details.
phone 07 3358 8600 and Box Office 119 Lamington St New Farm.