Syria, On the Cusp of Hipness, Then Fading

By Leah CaldwellMay 20, 2013

Syria, On the Cusp of Hipness, Then Fading

THERE ARE HUGE POP STARS IN SYRIA, but Omar Souleyman isn’t one of them. At the nightclubs in Damascus, where DJs mix Vanilla Ice with Cheb Khaled, Souleyman’s music isn’t on the playlist. His backstory is one of performances at weddings, locally produced music videos, and trips to the Gulf for more shows and bigger paychecks. This obscurity didn’t hinder his crossover into the US indie music scene — it was what made it possible.

I’ve been wondering what the future would hold for Souleyman since 2009, three years after his music was first introduced to American audiences with the album Highway to Hassake. That same year, Björk selected Souleyman for the NPR segment “You Must Hear This.” In her minimalist description — “The first time I heard Omar Souleyman was on YouTube. He’s from Syria. Some people call what he plays Syrian techno” — a kind of hype was born.  

Björk’s YouTube plug was for Souleyman’s song “Leh Jani,” or “Why’d she come?” in Arabic. Though first heard in Syria in 1996, it was his breakthrough “hit” in the US. The song’s video — put together by Mark Gergis, the Iraqi-American producer behind Souleyman’s Western debut — is a chaotic compilation of Souleyman party clips. Waves of neon Arabic text are superimposed on scenes of men and women shimmying the dabke line dance. Flashes of B-grade music videos depicting Souleyman, always sporting a keffiyeh and sunglasses, are spliced amongst the various celebrations. Souleyman’s vocals have been sped up to match the fast tempo of the keyboard, but Souleyman himself is slow moving; all the action takes place around him. 

Gergis was able to capture in a single video some of the bits of Syrian pop culture ephemerata that surround dabke musicians like Souleyman — things like the on-screen streaming of text messages and director credits that are ubiquitous in Arab music videos. The video hints at a kind of cast-off culture, street kitsch, that is pervasive in cities like Damascus. For each “Leh Jani” scene that shows dollar bills raining on long-haired women in glittery gowns, there are companion scenarios in everyday Syrian life, like the street vendors who sell posters of Bashar al-Assad, face framed in a heart, alongside Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio; neon palm trees that glow outside a Hollywood-themed restaurant named Street of Stars; a minibus that has a dashboard covered with red velvet hearts, its windows plastered with Nizar Qabbani couplets. Glimpses of pop culture are buried in the frenetic pace of the video and song.

It was an environment that Gergis hinted at in a 2010 interview:

Omar and his group have never heard of Elvis or the Beatles, yet they know Michael Jackson, George Michael and Celine Dion. Context and the dissemination of Western cultural detritus in Syria are something you have to be there to better understand.

Years later, like the Syria alluded to in “Leh Jani,” Souleyman has changed. Björk’s NPR nod turned into three Souleyman remixes on her 2011 Biophilia album, and the most common YouTube videos of the Syrian performer are now shot from side-stage at global musical festivals or even his own US–European tours. In a more surreal turn, one of his latest locally produced music videos is a mash-up of clips from his Western shows with an Arab lounge-style performance. Broadcast on the satellite music channel Al-Ghinwa, scrolling text at the bottom of the screen sends well wishes to the Saudi King on National Day. The biggest change, though, is still forthcoming.

On the eve of Souleyman’s latest European tour in April, British electronic musician Four Tet tweeted that he had “just finished mixing this Omar Souleyman record.”

There has been no official announcement of a new record, but this would be Souleyman’s first album recorded in a US studio — a big divergence from his previous four albums, all compilations of Syrian or Western live shows, released through his former label, the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies.

About two years ago, Souleyman broke from Sublime Frequencies and took on a new manager, Mina Tosti. She complained via a phone interview that Sublime Frequencies would take a scratchy Souleyman track and make it “ten times scratchier.” She said to expect a more “contemporary” sound in the future.

Souleyman has crossed over and his music is swimming in new expectations and understandings, his image negotiated by rock reviewers and journalists. He’s no longer a denizen of the static “world music” arena — or maybe never was — but instead a burgeoning player in US rock. What kinds of American rock detritus, I wondered, would his music pick up, and what would happen to that old Syrian background noise?


Syrian records, tapes, and CDs

Sublime Frequencies first billed Souleyman as “a Syrian musical legend,” even though most Syrians would be hard-pressed to identify him. From the country’s rural northeast, Souleyman was popular in his region, but his voice would’ve been just one among many blaring from the cassette kiosks of Damascus, where Gergis first heard his music.

To many Syrians, a homegrown legend would be someone like Sabah Fakhri. Fakhri, now about 80-years-old, sings mightily over ouds and violins, sometimes for hours — 10, to be specific, a feat that secured him the world record for continuous singing. I first heard his name in an undergraduate class on Middle East music where one student was so repulsed by the violin-playing in a Fakhri song that he dropped the class the next week.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, when only a handful of music from Syria was imported to the US, Fakhri was one of the few whose name could carry an album. His notoriety at home solidified his spot, however small, in US record store bins. The rest were relegated to miscellaneous “oriental” compilations. 

In 1987, a broader market for Arabic music was hypothetically born in the US with the inception of the “world music” genre. Still, Arabic music remained “a fairly minor player” in the world music scene in the 1980s and ’90s, not reaching popular heights in the United States until, paradoxically, after 9/11, wrote professor Ted Swedenburg in 2004. Perhaps 9/11 gave Arabic music a subversive allure.

By the time Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet founded Sublime Frequencies in 2003, the label could be seen as a revolt against both world music, with its bland fusions and mass marketing, and the stodgy readings of academics, which seemed to snub offbeat pop. Though Arabic music had been sold to the West for decades, the label gave it a veneer of hip. Filtered through the lens of indie savvy, Souleyman, a wedding singer, became a lo-fi, electronic musician of “cassette kiosk infamy.”

Sublime Frequencies built its brand by plucking foreign bands or trends from obscurity — most often several decades old — and presenting Western audiences with remote musical worlds that were also instantly relatable, whether for their heavy use of steel guitar or “garage band” sound. These global pop misfits delivered arcana in a way that communicated the opposite of exotic incomprehensibility. One could even feel that, though separated by continents and decades, we, as Western outsiders, were the music’s intended audience.

With the 2010 release of Souleyman’s third album Jazeera Nights, Sublime Frequencies had toned down their talk of his legendary status, presenting Souleyman instead as an obscure folk-pop icon, playing music “not previously deemed serious enough for export by the Syrians and rarely, if ever, included on the import agenda of worldwide academic musical committees.” In a casual way, these phrases told us something larger about Souleyman’s position in Syria and our role as Western listeners. It suggested that his country roots and electronic sound were an affront to Syria’s musical elite, that for whatever reason, they were ambivalent to this virtuoso in their midst. But it also cast the Westerner as shrewd music listener. Sublime Frequencies’ releasing Souleyman’s music was a vindication of the Syrian street’s interpretation of good music, and also of ours.

The whole scenario reminded me of another Syrian musician from the countryside, Fouad Faqro, his name a double entendre for his birth town of Faqro, located near Hama, and also meaning “poor” in Arabic.

Faqro got his start performing at weddings in his village and reached the peak of his mainstream fame in the 1980s with his hit “Li-Zrallik Bustan Wuroud,” or “Plant You a Flower Garden.” In a 2011 obituary, his music is described as being leaked to the cities via microbuses, the ubiquitous form of transportation where the driver, likely a recent urban transplant, is always blasting tunes from his village. When Faqro made it big in the cities, he changed his last name to Ghazi, but decades later, many still refer to him as Faqro. In YouTube videos of his performances, Ghazi looks like a businessman, almost always wearing a tight-fitting suit and tie.

As Souleyman’s story unfolded in the West, variations of it — rural musician rises to urban fame — had already played out countless times on the stage of Syrian pop culture; the obvious difference being that Souleyman’s newfound audience was thousands of miles away. Whereas Ghazi’s image had been set in Syria, his sound already produced, it seemed that Souleyman, in his relative obscurity, could be shaped anew in the West.

Now that Souleyman has been performing for several years in the West, that initial frenzy of discovery has passed. Those who see the Mideast as a hub for the next most obscure thing — possibly thanks to Souleyman’s rise — are moving on to new musicians and sounds. 

John Doran, a music journalist and editor at The Quietus, traveled to Cairo in April to track down some of the stars of Egypt’s “electronic chaabi” scene, chaabi meaning pop music, but with a working-class bent. His trip was spurred by a description of musician Islam Chipsy by Cargo Records’ Joe Bangina: 

Well, it’s wedding music, but it’s called Chaabi and it’s Egyptian, not Syrian. He has this crazy keyboard style and two drummers. He might start working on an album soon. I really want to get him over here — he’s amazing.

Doran decided to see for himself. “If it’s not us,” he wrote, “it’ll just be some other bunch of European idiots.”


Parallel dabke fates

The flyer read: “Our Heart Aches For Syria.” Drops of blood trickled alongside a list of indie-type bands set to perform at the March SXSW benefit show headlined by Souleyman. Ten dollars would gain you admission, with proceeds going to the International Red Cross. The Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin was a weirdly formal setting for the night’s show: an auditorium with three layers of balconies, cushioned seats, and elderly women checking tickets at the door. All the beer purchased from the lobby bar appeared to come in cups with lids.

I entered the auditorium as the fourth band of the night, Deer Tick, came on stage, the lead singer’s voice rasping because this was “like his millionth show this week.” Most of the audience, possibly a couple hundred at this point, had bypassed the comfortable seats and migrated toward the standing room near the stage. From afar, the spotlights made the stage appear as crisp and framed as an image on a high-definition flat screen. 

“If you want to help some refugees …” the lead singer trailed off. He picked up his train of thought again, “Do yourself a favor, do the world a favor. Come on it’s five, 10 dollars. I’ll do it right now.” He held up a bill and, to some applause, a guy from side stage came to retrieve it. 

British rock writer Simon Frith observes in Performing Rites that the whole process of categorizing music, placing it in a genre, works to ensure that the right people show up to the right party. With Souleyman, the genre was murky — somewhere between new wave dabke, electronic, world — but seven years after these adjectives were put out there by Pitchfork and friends, SXSW answered. This time around, having already shed one record label and toured the world, promotional material billed Souleyman as a “cult international legend.”

Earlier in the day, the planned Q&A session with Souleyman had been canceled at the last minute. The translator bailed, said the moderator. It’s also possible that Souleyman, after a hectic trip from Turkey, where he and his family are now living, was just tired. I also couldn’t help but think that maybe the organizers decided a Q&A wasn’t the best idea after all. When Souleyman was with Sublime Frequencies, Gergis seemed intent on protecting Souleyman’s political privacy. In 2010, when I interviewed Souleyman before a show in Philadelphia, Gergis told me that politics was off-limits. This was before the Syrian uprising, before the ensuing war, and before rumors of Kurdish secession in northeastern Syria seemed even remotely plausible.

During the rushed talk, I didn’t learn much about Souleyman. He minimized the differences between his Western and Syrian audiences, taking on the tack that everyone can enjoy his music equally. His politics are still a mystery to me. Professor Swedenburg tweeted in December 2012, “I wonder what #Björk thinks about Omar Souleyman’s paean to #Bashar al-Assad, recorded in 2008.” This love song to Bashar, the “hope of the nation,” doesn’t tell us much about Souleyman’s actual beliefs, as this type of recording is common in Syria, but whatever his views, I doubt most of the SXSW crowd would’ve been receptive to them.

After midnight, The Black Lips, a “flower punk” band from Atlanta, came on stage, bringing the crowd’s energy to a peak. A tame mosh pit of about 10 people formed, drawing the four cops stationed at the rear of the auditorium to the stage. Two moshers were dragged in the dark toward one of the exits. The band’s microphoned pleas of, “Kids just wanna have fun,” and “No security,” and something like, “That guy’s my friend,” fell on deaf ears. The benefit continued. This song’s “about garbage,” they said. This song’s “about painting,” said another.

“Give yourselves a pat on the back for helping out Syria,” said one vocalist to the audience. Another chimed in that the Syrians are having a bout of “unfortunate luck.” Then, “We’re super excited to play with, what’s his name, Omar Souleyman.”

By 1:30 a.m., when the Black Lips’ instruments had been removed and replaced with the lone keyboard synthesizer of Rizan Sa’id, Souleyman’s Kurdish collaborator, the crowd had dwindled. A music video was projected on the large screen behind the stage. Soldiers dancing dabke to the beat of Souleyman’s remix of Björk’s “Crystalline.” Bombs dropping on cities. Truck-mounted RPG fire synchronized with the song’s bridge. An explosion, a minaret, black smoke filling the sky. It was making war look cool and I couldn’t tell if that was the intent. The places and soldiers are anonymous until the very end, when the images of dozens of Syrian rebel and official army insignia flash on the screen. The quick cuts and fast pace of the dabke dancing made it seem like a macabre interpretation of Gergis’ original “Leh Jani” video, but all that playful pop culture had been subsumed by the new popular images of Syria, rag-tag rebels and RPGs.

Souleyman appeared on stage and told the audience, “Hello.” Sa’id began to loop the familiar electronic beats, with Souleyman improvising lyrics and weaving in old ones. The crowd danced along, a few guys wearing Souleyman’s trademark lenses. In between songs, a stretching silence filled the large auditorium, broken by the crowd’s murmured conversations and the occasional English words from Souleyman, like “Thank you.” Then, the lights turned on and we all retreated to our own worlds.

A few weeks before the Souleyman show, Ali Deek, another Syrian musician known for his folk-pop sound, was on a mini-tour of the US, performing at restaurants for mostly private audiences of Syrian expats. His Virginia venue, with tickets from $75 to $150, promoted him as “Dabka the Superstar Ali Al Deek.” Deek, an Alawi from a village near the coastal city of Lattakia, is an outspoken supporter of the Syrian regime and considerably more famous than Souleyman. The baby-faced 42-year-old is invariably featured in music videos as a slick Casanova, even donning the wedding garb of Prince William in one. 

A 2010 profile of Souleyman by music journalist Andy Morgan cast Deek as the “spruced-up grinning entertainer” to Souleyman’s “lack of polish and restraint,” which Morgan prefers. But after Souleyman’s Western crossover, it’s Deek’s US performances that are surprisingly rowdy in comparison with Souleyman’s head-bobbing festival gigs.

A video of Deek’s February 2013 performance at the Marmarita in Cleveland shows a bona fide Bashar love fest, complete with waving Syrian flags and photos of the president. But it was two weeks before, at his Chicago show, crashed by opponents of the Syrian regime waving the opposition flags, which really brought out the surreal nature of his and Souleyman’s different fates.

The incident wasn’t recorded, but Deek’s response was. He told the crowd in the dark, crowded venue: “If belonging to our nation is heresy, then may [those opponents] face the worst of fates!” 

“If those who opposed me had been carrying the national flag, then I would’ve respected their opinions. Even if they had insulted me, at least I would’ve been standing under the Syrian flag. But they were carrying the flag of the French Mandate! Who are these guys? What do they mean to me? What are they carrying?”

Deek’s performance was a total mess, his speech the culmination of emotions that Syrians at the moment either deeply sympathize with, or find revolting. At Souleyman’s SXSW show, there would be no Syrian dramas played out on stage, just some semblance of the good time that people came for. 

When Souleyman first debuted, before Syria was at war, it might’ve been easier for writers like Andy Morgan to assert:

The real wonder of someone like Omar Souleyman, and the place he comes from, isn’t how different or ‘other’ it is to the world we know, but how bloody similar it is, how universal fundamental human tragedy and human farce really is.

It’s getting harder to grasp that “universal” aspect when listening to music coming from Syria today. We’re not all experiencing the same tragedies. Detached, we could watch that video collage of Syria war clips and then hunker down for a dance party.

“There’s some interest in what it is, where it comes from, what exactly are we listening to, what are you saying, but you know, basically, it’s a great dance party,” observed Souleyman’s manager, Tosti.


Leah Caldwell is an editor at Al-Akhbar English. She lives in Austin, Texas. 

LARB Contributor

Leah Caldwell is an editor at Al-Akhbar English. She lives in Austin, Texas.


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