The Syrian Wedding Singer Who Conquered the World

Internationally renowned Omar Souleyman, former famed wedding singer, is on a roll across the Arab world and beyond because of his distinctive and eclectic style.

Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
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Souleyman at the 2014 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.Credit: Gary Miller / WireImage
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

The Syrian singer Omar Souleyman doesn’t have a moment of leisure time. And not because of the fighting that’s raging in his country – he lives in Istanbul these days, and rarely visits or performs in his homeland. But he’s constantly on the move between European capitals and North American venues. Recent concert sites have included Istanbul, London and Queensland, in Australia.

Souleyman is not a new phenomenon in the West. Since first gaining fame outside his native land, in 2007, he’s been in demand at both clubs and big concert halls. He even appeared at the formal-dress concert at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, in 2013, wearing his de-rigueur galabia, sandals, keffiyeh and headband, and dark glasses. And even if he didn’t get most of the audience to leave their seats and break into a rousing dabke dance, he did at least have them clapping to the rhythm. After all, the rhythm made him a hit in the clubs.

Souleyman was born in 1966 in Ras al-Ayn, in the Al-Hasakah Governorate of northeastern Syria. In 1994, he launched his musical career as a dabke singer, appearing at weddings backed up by a group of musicians, some of whom are still with him. Although Souleyman is a Sunni Muslim, most of the residents of Al-Hasakah Governorate are Assyrians and Kurds, and their influence is very noticeable in the dabke style that is his trademark.

The dabke is a dance performed either in a circle or in a line, and it is popular at weddings and other festive events in the lands of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan) and in certain regions of Turkey and Iraq. However, in almost every country and every region there are several dabke styles, set apart from one another by their rhythm, their movements or the gender for which they are intended (there is dabke for men, dabke for women and dabke for both together).

Souleyman’s musical style is different from all the above-mentioned, Palestinian styles. Under the influence of Kurdish music and such rhythmic Kurdish dance styles as dilan (also known as halay) or halparke, and with “input” from the Iraqi chobi – which characterizes mainly the modern dance of the Assyrians – Souleyman’s dabke is vigorously rhythmic. He also works in techno beats and sounds, produced by a simple keyboard system, and Syrian and Iraqi folk songs.

For more than 10 years, Souleyman was a popular wedding singer, for the most part in his district. During that period, he recorded hundreds of his performances at weddings and later gave each young couple a CD. Afterward, those discs also started to be sold at local kiosks and further afield.

In 2006, one of his CDs came to the attention of a Seattle-based record label called Sublime Frequencies, which specializes in music from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and other countries. The label’s cofounders, Alan Bishop and Hisam Mayet – the former half-Lebanese, the latter Libyan-born – immediately spotted the potential latent in Souleyman’s style. Within months, they released his first album outside Syria, “Highway to Hassake.” The album was a major success and opened the door for Souleyman to clubs and festivals across Europe.

Quicker than you can form a dabke line, Souleyman became a phenomenon on the Continent, a busy, in-demand performer. Since being “discovered,” he has released five more albums. One of the high points of his career came in 2011, when he recorded three remixes for the eighth album of the Icelandic singer Bjork, one of which, “Crystalline,” became a runaway hit. Many young partyers in Israel wiggled their bodies to its sounds in clubs and bars in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

Many more hits followed, and they can be heard in clubs around the world, among them “Warni Warni,” the title track of his most recent album, “Mendel” and “Wenu Wenu.” The latter two are from his most recent album, released in 2013 on the British label Ribbon Music. Two other songs of his that are big-time successes these days are “Baghdad Arabi” and “Mawal Jamar.” They differ in style from his previous songs, having a slow rhythm and being more melodic, almost meditative.

Sawas, social-network star

Still, every success has its downside – if not for Souleyman himself, whose dizzying worldwide success is admirable, then for other wedding singers and maybe for the label that first found him. Though the heads of Sublime Frequencies discovered Souleyman and gave him international exposure, they missed other talents – wedding singers no less – and in some cases more – gifted than Souleyman.

In contrast to Souleyman, who lives in exile, the most popular wedding singer in Syria in recent years is Sarya al Sawas, who still lives there and who was married herself last month. Born in 1981, she started to perform at the age of six, when she released her first song, “Don’t Play with Fire.” She later became a much sought-after dabke singer at weddings and family events. She released six more albums after her first, in 2008, but has not been discovered by any international record label.

What made her a star across Syria as well as in Lebanon and in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere, are the social networks. Her performances have been uploaded to YouTube and have made her famous among those who cannot afford or are unable to invite her to a family event. Her best-known song, “Only Listen to Me,” went viral and is regularly played in Palestinian bars and clubs.

Like Sawas, the Druze singer Asala Yousef, who was born in Daliat al-Carmel, the Druze village outside Haifa, became a regional star thanks to YouTube – not because of any American label. Yousef, who also sings in Hebrew in Mizrahi style, gained fame as a dabke singer at weddings, and had some big hits. However, since she married and became a mother, she has abandoned her musical career.

But the most talented of all was Palestinian singer Shafiq Kabha, who was born in Kafr Kara, Israel. Like Souleyman, he used the keyboard and traditional instruments. His electronic dabke was the most popular music at Palestinian weddings in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Despite Kabha’s enormous success, fortune did not smile on him. The Israeli authorities often prevented him from performing in the West Bank, punishment for his having sung nationalist songs and songs of yearning for Palestine; he was also barred from performing in Arab countries because of the Arab boycott on Israel. Finally, in October 2013, Kabha was shot and killed by three men for refusing to perform at the wedding of one of their relatives.

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