Before anyone in the West had ever heard of him, Omar Souleyman was already a star in northeastern Syria, where he was one of the most in-demand wedding performers in the region. Souleyman plays dabke music, the frenetic dance music that’s been a staple of celebrations throughout the Levant for over a century, but with a contemporary twist. In order to make his operation more efficient he began replacing dabke’s traditional instruments—particularly the hand drums and a double-reeded flute called a mijwiz that usually provides a buzzing, flitting lead—with electronic ones. Between Souleyman’s signature sound, his booming baritone voice (which lends a commanding quality to the exhortations to move that pepper his songs), and his willingness to cross religious and ethnic lines for gigs, he became something of a cult figure in the area around his hometown of Ras al-Ayn. Satisfied customers ran off copies of the cassette tapes of his performances that he gave them as souvenirs, and by the time he was approached by the Seattle specialty label Sublime Frequencies, there were literally hundreds of different recordings on the impromptu market that had sprung up around him.
Sublime Frequencies introduced Souleyman to Western audiences with a 2007 compilation of selections from his wedding tapes, launching a new phase of his career that would take him far away from Ras al-Ayn (and now his new home in Turkey) with global tours (where he’s frequently booked at clubs that cater to more of a rock crowd than a world music one) and frequent appearances at music festivals. Since then he’s developed a cult fan base in America and elsewhere. Indie rockers love him for the relentlessly party-focused energy of his performances, which rival Andrew W.K.’s in their own way. Dance music fans love him for his music’s relentless four-on-the-floor stomp and its similarities—purely unintentional, he says—to house and techno. His idiosyncratic take on a regional musical style far removed from the conventions of Western pop has turned out to have a surprising global appeal.
While Souleyman has become a fixture on the touring circuit, he’s only had limited interactions with the Western acts he plays beside. Part of it’s the language barrier, and part of it’s just a reflection of his musical preferences. “Unfortunately I don’t know the names of many of the singers I’ve played with in Western countries,” he says through an interpreter. “Normally I listen to slow music, but I can’t sing it.”
He’s managed to forge some solid relationships with experimentally-inclined electronic musicians, who seem to constitute his most passionate fan base outside of the Middle East. Bjork’s had him remix one of her songs, and in 2013 he released an album, Wenu Wenu, produced by Kieran Hebden, who makes boundary-pushing club beats under the name Four Tet. Souleyman has high praise for Hebden: “Everything he gives me is perfect. I’m really happy to work with him, and I hope to work with him again in the future. Kieran knows everything about me. We know each other well now.”
For his latest album, Bahdeni Nami, he has expanded his roster of collaborators to include more of dance music’s leading edge, including glitchy German duo Modeselektor and paragon of British DJ culture Gilles Peterson, who each produced tracks, and Dutch synthesizer experimentalist Legowelt, who contributes a remix of the title track.
“There are new songs and new music and a new way of recording at the studio,” as Souleyman describes it. The new collaborations went down over the Internet, and the results are much fuller sonically than his earlier records, which had an overdriven lo-fi quality normally associated with noisy punk bands (another element that helped bolster his outsider-artist allure). Bahdeni Nami has a deep, club-quality thump to it that his past records didn’t have. The new producers have also toned down some of Souleyman’s longtime accompanist Rizan Said’s keyboard sounds, removing the pixelated digital sheen that defined his earlier works and making for a smoother listening experience. On some tracks they’ve introduced elements of Western electronic dance music into Souleyman’s mix of regional styles—the Hebden-produced title track blends dabke’s traditional stomping rhythms with Chicago-style house beats, while Peterson’s beat for “Tawwalt El Gheba” incorporates Italo disco’s electro throb (and even some of its archetypally ’80s synth-tom fills). Souleyman even admits to easing up on dabke’s famously speedy tempos in order to make it more palatable for Western ears. “There is a difference in the rhythm,” he says. “The dabke rhythm is very fast, and Western music is much slower. I tried to accommodate the differences between the Western and dabke style.”
However, he says, “There was not a big difference between this album and the old ones,” when it comes down to it. It’s true, too. His new collaborators aren’t trying to give Souleyman too much of a dance-floor makeover, and the new influences they’ve introduced are flourishes on top of Souleyman’s signature style, rather than a replacement for it. In some ways, Bahdeni Nami is is the most traditional-sounding dabke record that Souleyman has released for the Western market. Said’s keyboards sound more organic, and closer to the sound of the acoustic instruments they’re emulating, than anything in the past, and Khaled Youssef contributes delicate leads on the saz—a lute-like stringed instrument—that would probably have been lost in the electronic mayhem of older Souleyman records. He even opens the album with a mawwal, a traditional Arabic musical introduction.
The biggest change between Souleyman before his break and Souleyman now is that he doesn’t have time anymore to play at weddings. “For now, my schedule doesn’t allow me to perform at weddings,” he explains. “I have too many performances in Europe and Canada.” He still carries fond memories of his early, more humble career, and lessons that he learned from them as a performer. “Each wedding I’ve played at I’ve liked it,” he says. “I’ve always tried to make each wedding the best.”