-Words by Ragnar Egilsson
Aside from the kebab shop muzak and the ominous wailings heard in American action movies whenever the setting is moved outside the U.S., your average Icelander is not likely to have much exposure to Arabic music. This makes Omar Souleyman one of the more unusual cultural crossovers to reach Iceland’s shores. A prominent dabke musician in his home country of Syria, he performs a style of ultra-fast, chaotic dabke, leaning towards techno and always on the verge of veering off course. Souleyman claims to have released over 500 albums and cassettes, although most of them were in the form of live recordings at weddings, where he continues to perform alongside the festival touring circuit.
Brought to the West’s attention by the label Sublime Frequencies, which has been releasing compilations of his works since 2006, Omar Souleyman is never seen without his trademark moustache, his keffiyeh and his Columbian drug lord sunglasses; his stage presence is best described as stoic, as he stands and recites breathless poetry over frantic Casio-beats.
We love his music, and want you all to go see him. To promote his show, we therefore sent him a few questions by way of a translator.
THE OBLIGATORY ICELAND QUESTIONS
Hey, Mr. Souleyman! Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Let’s start with the Iceland connection. I must ask about the remix of the song “Crystalline.” How did this collaboration come about and how did you approach the remix?
Björk had contacted me and wanted us to work on a project together. I recorded three songs in the studio and that was all. She then recorded her voice over it and improved it in ways that were best suited.
What is your impression of Iceland?
I do not know much about Iceland, I am sorry. I know it could be cold there, because it is all ice.
Your last visit to the Nordic countries did not go so well. You were originally banned from performing in Sweden last August, due to a change in Swedish immigration law. What happened there and how did you solve it
Everything worked out just fine in August with Sweden in the end. Yes, there was a visa denial initially, but my team have solved that with great persistence and the help of the promoter from Sweden. And the Swedish press got involved and was very supportive.
In the west (certainly to my ears) the appeal of your music seems to lie in its raw, fast, chaotic style. It immediately reminds me of punk rock. And indeed, Mark Gergis at Sublime Frequencies, who has been instrumental in bringing your music to an American audience, has a background in punk and noise music. How does this image in the West compare to your image back home? And what is your opinion on Western punk rock music?
I have no opinion on punk music—I do not know what it is. Of course the audience is welcome to see and hear it as they please and I am glad it reminds you of something you like.
Mark has only taken my tapes and started selling them in the West. My audience grew with live shows that I have been doing for the last four years and there are many more people involved in that process. I no longer work with that label, and I have a new album coming in the end of October with a new label and I am very much looking forward to that.
Much of your fame has come about through the anarchic distribution of cassette tapes. What is your opinion on modern distribution methods as well as music piracy on the internet?
My cassettes were distributed in Syria in the way that it is done in our country and this has benefited me. Maybe to someone else from outside that looks old fashioned or something like this, but this is the only way we know how. We also do not have any laws that protect our work so many people copy it and I am not pleased about this.
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE
What kind of audience do you have in mind when you make your music? Has it changed now that you have found some fame outside of the Middle East?
My music and inspiration remain the same. My songs are about love and heartache because of love and such simple things in life. I am pleased about how many more people listen to my music all over the world, but I remain true to my music as before.
I don’t speak Arabic, but I’ve been told that much of your lyrics are improvised during your live shows. I have also read that your lyrics are born out of a collaboration with poet Mahmoud Harbi—could you elaborate?
No, actually it is at weddings and celebrations that last for hours that my lyrics are improvised and that is when I collaborate with a poet. It is different each time and depends on the setting. Yes, I have worked with Mahmoud Harbi, but also with many, many others. He was only mentioned once long ago, I believe in the Western press, so everyone keeps asking about him in the West. In my shows in the West, my set is precise—my lyrics are done from memory and I know them all by heart. The need to improvise the lyrics at weddings is simply because there is a wedding party to address and there lies the difference.
What are your most common lyrical themes?
My album is coming out at the end of October and will contain full translations of all of my lyrics. The theme of all my lyrics is mainly about love. There isn’t much more than that.