Portrait: Syrian Singer Omar Souleyman

The King of Electro Dabke

Omar Souleyman does not come from a musical family. But when he and his band began to transfer traditional instruments to keyboard, they created a whole new style – electro dabke. Signing to an American label has given the Syrian a world audience. He talked to Stefan Franzen

photo: Sublime Frequencies
Omar Souleyman draws from many diverse sources for his songs, including the rhythms of Kurdish <i>shekhani</i>, Iraqi <i>choubi </i>or <i>mawal</i>, and – most notably – the <i>dabke</i>

​​Even though it may seem to us in the West as if world music is everywhere, European music lovers often seem to miss out on some of the most amazing sounds. This is especially true of the Arab pop music scene from Jakarta to Damascus. There, as is the case in Africa, the music cassette, which we in Europe tend to think of as something of an ancient relic, is extremely popular. Long years may pass, however, before anyone in the West picks up on the local stars of the Occidental cassette markets. In Omar Souleyman's case it was sixteen.

In his homeland, the Syrian is a superstar. Since the beginning of the nineties he has brought out an amazing 600 cassettes, which are literally sold on every street corner. The US label Sublime Frequencies, which scours the globe in search of obscure folk and pop sounds has now put together a collection of his best work. In their publicity, the Seattle record company refers to Souleyman's music as sounding like a "forbidden Morse code." And they are not far wrong.

Old anachronistic keyboards wail out like the sirens of police cars in old action movies or the strident, wild strains of a shawm. This is all happening to the accompaniment of an electric guitar, like an Arab version of Surf Guitar King Dick Dale's instrument it weaves its way through a battery of sound effects.

Anarchic electronic musical energy

A racy, driving percussion, half computer half frame drums gives the music its tremendous dynamic. And then there is the voice, alternating between an ecstatic, meandering nasal twang and a galloping declamatory cry. Suddenly there is a pause in the music: a slow, almost belly dance rhythm takes over accompanied by a breakneck solo lute. It all adds up to something that no sound engineer north of Istanbul would be willing to accept.

Music cassette (photo: Wikipedia)
An ancient relic? In the Arab pop music scene from Jakarta to Damascus the music cassette is still extremely popular

​​What is this music about? And who is this Omar Souleyman, who appears on his album covers wearing a kufiya, enormous sunglasses and an equally large moustache?

He is from the rural northeast of Syria, a place where the most diverse traditions in the Islamic world come together. "I was not born into a musical family, but in my region, one can hardly escape music," he tells me. "A friend encouraged me to sing at local festivals and a little later, in 1995, I met the Kurdish-Syrian keyboardist Rizan Said. I have been singing with him professionally, at weddings all over the northeast of Syria ever since."

Souleyman draws from many diverse sources for his songs, including the rhythms of Kurdish shekhani, Iraqi choubi or mawal, and it is with the latter of these, that the singer, in an introductory section, demonstrates his improvisational skills. But it is the dabke that he has really made his own.

A diversity of cultural influences

"The dabke is the modern folk dance which one finds throughout the Levant: in Libya, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and parts of Turkey as well as Syria," Souleyman explains. "My sound is based on the dabke found in the Jazeera region where the influences of the Muslim, Christian, Kurdish and Armenian populations meet and mix. The proximity of Iraq is also something that can be sensed in our music."

In its original form, dabke is a line dance where participants link with their hands on one another's shoulders and feet stamping on the floor. In Omar Souleyman's version it has become something charged with anarchic electronic energy "We really did something that was new in the nineties," he says proudly. "We were the first to electrify traditional instruments such as the mijwiz flute and the rebab fiddle and transfer them to a keyboard that was specially programmed for this."

The bouzouki and the long-necked flute or saz are also amplified and electrified by specialist Ali Shaker, creator of the above-mentioned surf effect. Souleyman assures me that neither he nor any of his musicians has ever heard the name Dick Dale.

Spontaneous poetry of love

The music and traditional "ataba" verse harmonise with one another to great effect. Souleyman draws upon the poetry of his long-standing partner Mahmoud Harbi, a poetry that is often created during the performance itself. The chain-smoking poet stands alongside the singer on stage, whispering his spontaneous compositions into his ear.

Palestinian youth perform traditional Dabka dancing in the fields of Gaza to commemorate Land Day (photo: Wikipedia)
Dabke is the most popular Arab folk dance in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria. It is also danced in parts of Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Dabke in Arabic literally means "stamping of the feet"

​​"All of the poetry is improvised, the poet has to find a clever way to weave the names of the families who have engaged us for the wedding celebrations into the poetry," Souleyman explains. "The themes, of course, are love, especially lost love, and other problems that we encounter in life."

Souleyman's extraordinarily prolific recording tally can be explained by his participation in such celebrations. Nothing is wasted, his performances on such occasions are recorded and the music cassette subsequently released for sale.

His electro dabke has taken the singer onto national television; an honour granted to no other representative of the genre, he says. But thanks to the American label Sublime Frequencies, he has now reached a much larger audience. "This has made us famous all over the world! It has been a huge surprise to us, and we are very happy that our music is now going to be heard everywhere."

Stefan Franzen

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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