Move Over Marshmello: Meet the Syrian Refugee DJ Taking Over the World

Omar Souleyman has taken the chords and rhythms of the debka, seasoned them with an electro-techno flair, and made it big around the globe

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Syrian musician Omar Souleyman performing in Reykjavik, Iceland, November 1, 2013.
I wear my sunglasses at night: Syrian musician Omar Souleyman performing in Reykjavik, Iceland, November 1, 2013. Credit: Matthew Eisman / Getty Images
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour

I have a strange, unresolved feeling about the debka, the Palestinian version of the dance in particular. I grew up in a world where only men were allowed to dance a debka without raising eyebrows. Over time Palestinian and other women claimed ownership of the genre – but that’s a trap I don’t fall in to, except when I do.

I envied those who quickly learned to dance a debka, but it always roused my ire because I saw it as a masculine, herdlike act that I had no desire to take part in. I was afraid of falling into the collective Palestinian nostalgia that would steal from me, if only for a moment, the political sobriety and rationale I had worked so hard for.

Then one day when I was looking for music for the gym, I saw a man doing a debka – a techno-debka. The music, the dense rhythm, the electronic sophistication, the volume penetrated straight into my brain. I couldn’t stop moving.

The man who got me doing a freestyle debka a year and a half ago, without thinking for a moment about the movements, rules or precision rhythm, is Syrian Omar Souleyman. He was born in the village of Ras al-Ayn in Syria’s Al-Hasakah region in 1966 – a country boy without any musical training but apparently with the chutzpah of country boys with big dreams. He liberated the debka from its taboo and traditional musical patterns.

In doing so, he also became one of the hottest names in the Arab world and Europe. When Souleyman is asked in interviews how it happened, he says it all began with a certain country girl.

That girl wrote a love song in 1996 and sent it to him to sing at weddings where he performed. The tune made it big; Syrians in Europe listened to it constantly. In 2005, the Seattle-based record label Sublime Frequences signed Souleyman to re-record the hit.

About five years later, Souleyman fled the Syrian civil war, and for a decade he has been living in Turkey. From a wedding singer he became a star singer and DJ with five albums under his belt.

Omar Souleyman in one of his videos, superimposed on a van. Credit: Omar Souleyman

Now he performs all over the world; he played at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2013, did a remix for Bjork and collaborated with Blur’s Damon Albarn. He’s even more loved in the West than in the Arab world.

So what turned him into a worldwide phenomenon, in the West as well?

When you first hear his mixes you think that the man has launched a musical revolution, which is exactly what happens to the Western ear when it encounters the yarghul and mijwiz woodwind instruments. But to the Arab world, which is familiar with the rhythms, fluctuations and melodies of the debka, there are no revolutions here.

Souleyman has taken the traditional chords and rhythms of the debka (mainly Kurdish and Iraqi), seasoned them with electro-techno elements, and created a new, rhythmic, loud and wild debka. He has skillfully compressed, accelerated and shortened the traditional chords while raising the volume.

At the same time, he has kept the traditional instruments, which blend into the background, not necessarily in their usual roles. And he’s strongly present in his music: He includes narration, mawal vocal music and sounds such as the siren of a police van. The result is a stellar rhythmic electro-techno debka.

Omar Souleyman. From a wedding singer he became a star singer and DJ with five albums under his belt.Credit: WireImage / Getty

But despite the dizzying success, Souleyman gets harshly criticized, mainly by everyday Syrians, but also by critics. The former say he distorts and flattens the Syrian musical heritage, particularly that of the Al-Hasakah district.

Some have even criticized his clothing; he performs in a red kaffiyeh and a djellaba robe. They say he looks ridiculous and old-fashioned as he evinces Arab kitsch.

The music critics, meanwhile, believe his main success is his exporting of music that lacks innovation; he has turned the genre into a worldwide product. They say he has entered the consumer-music marketing game; the critics, too, are crying kitsch.

But Souleyman thumbs his nose at them all, whether they’re lambasting the music or the fashion. He once said in an interview that his clothes brought him to where he is now, so he’s not going to jettison this part of his identity.

It’s also hard to disparage him musically. He admits he’s not knowledgeable in that sense, but he has proclaimed about a trio of classic singers: “I grew up on Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim and Sabah. I admire them but they aren’t my source of inspiration.”

I’ll probably never understand why the main issue in an artistic creation has to be the innovation. Instead, we could ask how rebellious and consensus-breaking it is, and how it fights the herd mentality.

To many, Souleyman may not be doing anything new, but I think his work is still of social, political and even cultural value. He takes a cultural taboo – a masculine one in this case – breaks it apart, liquefies it and pours it into different artistic molds that are contemporary and oh so alive.

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