Omar Souleyman: Interview
“I would be proud that someone was influenced by my music and took some of it, because I would consider that as a victory for me.”

“World music” is one of those nebulous, indefinite phrases that seems to do little beyond reducing what isn’t Western to one homogeneous, undifferentiated mass, and preserving the exotic in its hazy aura of inscrutability and distance. There’s something obscurantist and mysterious about the label, something that passively resists any attempt to divide its domain into more informative categories. And almost in compliance with this evasive obscurity, there stand the often elusive questions of why some performers of “world music” are lifted out of the homogenized block by Western audiences, and whether this elevation accords them and their origins some much needed individuality and personality or in fact fixes them all the more stubbornly to generic stereotypes and undignified cipherdom.

This was the issue I hoped to approach when I agreed to interview Omar Souleyman, who in 2007 was suddenly transformed into a global name via Highway to Hassake, his debut for Sublime Frequencies, and who has first studio album called Wenu Wenu (produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden) out October 22 on Ribbon Music. Unfortunately, this hope was stifled and eventually quashed. Maybe I was naive in supposing Souleyman could be drawn into waxing lyrical on his rise to fame, or maybe it was just downright stupid to attempt an interview in the midst of what was the then emerging news of American plans to police the world yet again, but every question I asked was dispatched with the maximum in economy and brevity, and in the end, rather than penetrating the aura of (possibly projected) otherness that surrounds Souleyman, the interview emerged as a testament to the gulf that perhaps makes the singer’s music all the more enticing to his admirers.


Having seen you perform at FYF on Sunday night, I wanted to begin by asking you if, when you began singing in the mid-1990s, you ever expected or thought that maybe one day you’d be touring Europe and America, playing to thousands of people?

No, I didn’t expect it at all. I wished it, but I didn’t expect it to come true.

Did you ever have any particular plans at the beginning of your career, any particular vision of where performing would take you? Or did you take things one day and step at a time, going wherever opportunity presented itself?

No, at the beginning I didn’t even think of going out of Syria, or the Arab countries. I didn’t expect to be touring the world like this. So I didn’t have any plans; I didn’t have any expectations when I started out.

No, I won’t change my style ever, because it is what I am, it is my tradition. If I change to be more consistent with the European or Western culture, it won’t be me, and I will be abandoning my tradition and society. My music is mine; it’s me.

But now that you’re known worldwide as a musician and performer, I wanted to know whether you define yourself as more than someone who plays music and sings?

I consider myself as a normal, regular person, like everyone else. I’m not really into fame or being famous.

Returning to your performance at FYF, I was there in the middle of the crowd, and everyone around me was dancing, smiling, and enjoying themselves enormously, so I just wanted to ask whether you regard audience involvement as a vital part of your music. Is performing live the most important thing for you?

Yes, the most important thing for me is to sing in front of an audience on stage, because it’s the audience that makes me an artist, and it’s the audience that gives me the fulfillment I need; not simply recording in a studio.

And speaking of studio albums, I understand that you’re in the process of recording a new album with Kieran Hebdan, also known as Four Tet. How close is that to completion — how is it progressing?

We’ve just finished recording, and the distribution phase is about to come now. Everything went really well.

What is your creative process when you write lyrics and compose? Listening to your music, it comes across as quite energetic, fluid and spontaneous, so I was curious to know whether the process of writing is similarly free-flowing and easy for you and the musicians with whom you play.

The process is quite easy for me; it’s not really difficult. We always use the most popular sounds on the keyboards we have, and the recording process is easy for me because I have experience with it now. And I always feel like enjoying myself, so that makes it easier.

And was the recording of your new album with the same musicians, with Rizan Sa’id and Ali Shaker, or are you expanding to extra musicians and changing your style at all?

I’m trying to expand the band, because with the current band there was a visa issue, with Ali Shaker [Shaker was conspicuous through his absence at FYF — SC]. We applied a few times for a visa for him, but was refused. So I’m trying to find someone new, and I’m trying to find someone who plays jazz.

I consider myself as a normal, regular person, like everyone else. I’m not really into fame or being famous.

Right, OK… Another thing I wanted to ask was that, now your music is much more popular in the Western world, do you at all feel pressure to play up to the expectations of Western audiences, to make music that’s more appealing and amenable to Western tastes? Or, on the contrary, do you feel a greater motivation to preserve what is distinctly Syrian and Middle Eastern about your music?

No, I won’t change my style ever, because it is what I am, it is my tradition. If I change to be more consistent with the European or Western culture, it won’t be me, and I will be abandoning my tradition and society. My music is mine; it’s me.

Now that you’ve traveled throughout the globe, has it changed your view of the rest of the world, and also has the way these new audiences have responded to you changed how you view your music?

It hasn’t really changed anything for me; I’m the same. The most important thing for me is to be on stage and sing for the audience. That’s not changeable.

Do you think the dissemination of your music throughout the Western world could help foster mutual understanding between peoples of East and West, or do you think that kind of political or social reconciliation is beyond the power of music?

Yes, I think it could help make the different peoples closer than they are now.

What can you tell us about the history and development of dabke music up to the present day, and also what can you tell us about how you first came to be involved in it?

For me it was a hobby. I started when I was 7; I liked to sing. The first kickoff was in 1994, but before that I used to sing in small bands, and sing at weddings. My friends used to really pressure me to sing, so I’d sing for 10 to 30 minutes at weddings and local dancing concerts at my town.

How would you feel if bands outside of the Middle East were to take your music as an influence and were to start to copy what you’re doing? Would you regard that as flattering, as pleasing to you, or would you feel that in some way they were stealing your tradition and culture, not showing them enough respect?

No, I wouldn’t consider it as stealing or anything like that. I would be proud that someone was influenced by my music and took some of it, because I would consider that as a victory for me.

Finally, what importance does your music have in your life? What does it mean to you personally when you write and play music?

It is my life; it’s part of myself. It stands for everything I believe in, for [my] morals. It’s the most beautiful thing in my life.