Omar Souleyman: The king of Syrian techno
Omar Souleyman made his name as a wedding singer back home in his native Syria – so just how did he become a world-famous techno superstar?
Is it true you have made more than 500 albums? Why so many?
Yes, that’s right – amazing isn’t it? I’d say about 500 or more cassettes have been made of my music in Syria over the years. It may not be the same as albums as you would see them in the west, but they all exist. Some people have asked me why I’d do that, but the true story is that they were recorded mostly at weddings and celebrations. In fact, only some times were songs recorded in a studio setting. Very often, they were recorded by different families who were celebrating weddings and so on, and then complied into full cassettes.
Does it worry you that most of the recordings are then copied and sold?
It happens very often, and we do not have any copyright laws just yet in Syria. I know I probably should be, but I am not too worried, or upset. It just is how it is.
You’re from the northeast of Syria; most of us in Ireland have little or no idea what that area is like – what it is like to live there, and what was it like for you as a musician growing up there?
I am from Jazeera Hasaka in north Syria. My village is Tel Amir, which is near the town Ras al Ayn. Our land is beautiful. At the moment I live in Turkey, not too far from the Syrian border, where it is safer for my family. As a musician, I have a lot of respect for my home region, and it is always a great joy to bring music to people, to make them dance and give them happiness with my singing.
Over the past few years, you have worked with Western musicians, some of which, such as Björk, are very well known. Are these kindred spirits, or do you find differences in both culture and creativity?
People are people and musicians are musicians. I haven’t worked with that many, to be honest – the only one I have worked with on a project is Björk, but that wasn’t face to face, I never met her. Her music is good, of course, but I can’t say I’m too familiar with it. I am always pleased, though, when other known or even unknown musicians in the west feel close to my music and want to work on it with me.
Is it true that you’re not allowed into other European countries because they worry you may claim asylum?
No, that is not true, and that’s something I want to set the record straight on. I have never had a problem visiting any country in the western world. This past summer there was a slight issue with my visa to Sweden, but that was resolved quickly.
You’ve been described as the King of Syrian Techno - what do you think about titles like that?
I like it and am proud of that. It’s true, as well!
Your live show is very unusual – is it true that Syrian poets whisper lyrics into your ear for you to sing, even though you don’t know what they’re going to say?
Well, that is half true. A poet is by my side often when I sing at a wedding or a celebration of some sort. That is because the wedding party or the community who are there must be addressed in a special way and the poet helps me with that. In my concerts in the west all the lyrics are mine and from memory.
Do you still play at weddings?
At the moment I am not singing at weddings. The situation in Syria is not good, and I will not celebrate with anyone until it gets better.
Your music is frantic, full of rhythms, but what kind of music do you listen to off stage?
I like making people dance, yes, of course, but when I’m by myself I like calm and quiet music. My favourite? I love the eternal music of Uum Kulthum, the star of the Orient. Everyone should listen to her.