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Omar Souleyman To Syria, with love

With war in Syria entering its sixth year, the country’s rich cultural, intellectual and social history risks being eclipsed entirely. Since breaking into the Western underground a decade ago with the album Highway to Hassake, released on Sun City Girls’ Sublime Frequencies label, Omar Souleyman has been the sole global torchbearer for the country’s modern musical traditions. This has seen the dabke singer play everywhere from Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge to the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, followed by collaborations with electronic producers such as Four Tet and Modeselektor to bring studio polish to his rough and ready party music.

Souleyman is no stranger to a busy touring schedule. Soon after starting his musical career in the 90s, he was one of the region’s most in-demand wedding singers, and his habit of recording each performance as a present for the newly-weds has led him to amass a gargantuan back catalogue of around 500 live records. Described as “a personal ode to his native country”, Souleyman’s new studio album, To Syria, With Love, is out this month on Diplo’s Mad Decent label.

We caught up with him for his thoughts on the new record, his newfound cult status and the side of Syria you won’t see on the News at Ten.

Your new album is called To Syria, With Love. Tell us something you love about your homeland.

Well, like everyone else, I love my home, the view from my house, my neighbours, the animals, the roads, the mountains, my friends and family.

For obvious reasons people have a very fixed image of Syria at the moment, which is probably different to yours. You grew up in Tell Tamir in the north-east of the country. What was your childhood like there?

It was wonderful. Syria was heaven on earth. We were indeed very happy.

In a previous life you were a farmer. How did you go from that job to a singing career that famously saw you record hundreds of live records at weddings all over Syria?

I wasn’t exactly a farmer. We come from the rural parts, so everyone pretty much had some land and some animals to live from. If you mean what kind of jobs I did before singing was the only way of making a living for me, well, I did many: I painted houses and the like, I used to fix things for people.

The new record has been described as a departure from previous albums like Bahdeni Nami. What has changed on this record?

Musically, it’s very important to listen to my present keyboard player, who is a genius and a wizard. He is very young, but he is so exceptional in the way he improvises and in the way he provides accompaniment for me. It is much more modern and intense than anyone I have worked with before. On another note, my new album has songs where I express some thoughts and feelings I had about my pain I feel for my home in trouble over the last several years.

It sounds like the musical partnership with your current keyboardist is very important to the modern sound of the new record. How does the collaborative creative process with him work?

Yes, of course it is important. He is Hasan Alo and he is very young and I consider him a genius and the best keyboard player I’ve ever had. With my keyboard players of course I always need a certain kind of support. They need to allow me to ‘fly’ during my live set, or to be completely free to sing and entertain. He is a master of improvisation and combines the best sounds – and can do all that with his eyes closed.

What are your current thoughts on the situation in Syria and about the future there?

I hope everything goes back to peace in my home and that I return there very soon – and that all of us return home.

The words appear to be very important in your music, and your new record features lyrics co-written with poet Shawah Al Ahmad. Given this, why do you think your music is so popular with Western audiences who can’t speak Arabic?

Well, I always hope that my audience in the West would read the lyrics that always do come with my albums. But it is hard to get them to do that really, it seems. Even the journalists and others don’t really take the time to read them. If they did, it could be different. But in any case, I know that my audience really enjoys dancing and having a good time at my shows while listening to my music, so the language and the words are secondary, which is also fine for me.

On your newer albums you often collaborate with dance musicians like Four Tet, Gilles Peterson and Modeselektor. What do these producers bring to your music?

Four Tet was first, and he brought a new sound to my music that I always was dreaming to have. That is, the quality of the sound was finally there. I am very thankful to him for that. On the second album, yes, there were Modeselektor mixing as well as Gilles Peterson. They sort of tried to follow in Four Tet’s shoes, but in the end it wasn’t the same thing. I have made a change this time around and haven’t asked any Western producer to mix my music.

When you’re not soundtracking weddings or recording new records, how do you like to relax?

I spend time with my family and take care of them.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

I listen to traditional music from Syria and the Middle East only.

Which lesser-known Syrian musicians and dabke singers deserve more exposure in the UK?

Certainly, Saad Al Harbawi. He is my idol and in many ways my teacher. Saad Al Harbawi is a singer from my home town and I always aspired to be like him and to sing like him. He has the most powerful voice and way of singing. He has been blind from birth, but he has a way of conjuring up images with his songs in a remarkable way.

What is dabke?

Performed at weddings and other social get-togethers, dabke is a style of line and circle dancing originating in the Levant countries: Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It has numerous local varieties, each with their own distinct style and theory of origin.

Although dabke was for hundreds of years accompanied by traditional instruments, like tablah drums and mijwiz reed pipes, contemporary musicians like Souleyman use keyboards, synths and programmed drums for a more intense electronic sound. This fusion of the traditional and the modern has prompted the genre’s unlikely transformation into one of the most in-demand sounds of the global club underground.

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