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Omar Souleyman: America's Favorite Syrian Wedding Singer

Nov 14, 2013
Originally published on November 14, 2013 5:53 am

The growing Syrian diaspora streaming out of a country being torn apart includes one of its most popular singers: Omar Souleyman. The musician combines songs of love and desire with driving techno beats, performed on a synthesizer.

Before Syria plunged into civil war and Souleyman crossed the border into Turkey, he was a wedding singer — a position more highly regarded abroad than it is in the U.S. Syrian weddings are an especially popular celebration in the country, and regarded as crucial venues for musical innovation.

"[Weddings] are important for experimenting in different kinds of music," Souleyman tells NPR's Renee Montagne through an interpreter. "In the region where I'm from, weddings have been really important in mixing different kinds of musical heritage."

While he now relies on the sounds of an electronic keyboard, Souleyman says he remembers a time when music heard during a wedding was a lot more authentic.

"Traditionally in weddings, we relied on local musical instruments, such as the buzuq, the rababah, the qanun," he says. "I personally like the traditional rhythms more; that was more authentic, in a way. But the world has changed, and so has our music."

While Souleyman is a sufficient entertainer on his own, he takes the wedding experience up a notch by inviting a collaborator — a poet — to join him onstage and make the experience more intimate and memorable.

"The role of the poet is to improvise lyrics about the bride, about the groom," Souleyman says. "About how they met, about their love to each other, how their lives might develop in the future and about specificities in that wedding itself."

The sort of lyrics he might end up with could range from a groom addressing God — asking not for acceptance to Heaven, but to just be with his bride — to a woman telling her mother that she doesn't want to marry her cousin, but instead wishes to share a life with her lover.

Souleyman has released hundreds of cassettes of live music, mostly taken from his wedding gigs. In recent years, those recordings have made their way into the hands of electronic-music fans in the U.S., leading to collaborations with the likes of Bjork, as well as festival appearances. While his popularity increases stateside, Souleyman says he has not performed in Syria in more than two years, and likely won't for some time to come.

"I will not perform in Syria under the current difficult circumstances out of respect for the Syrian society," he says. "I don't involve myself in the politics of the country, but I certainly hope that one day, we will sing and dance again as we have always done."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The growing diaspora as Syrians stream out of a country being torn apart includes one of the country's most popular singers. Omar Souleyman combines songs of love and desire with driving techno beats on a synthesizer. It's a pumped up electronic version of dabke, a traditional music heard at weddings.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

OMAR SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Before Syria plunged into civil war and Omar Souleyman crossed the border into Turkey, he was a wedding singer, mostly, who, as music critic Richard Gare(ph) describes it: Cut a striking figure.

RICHARD GARE: He's dressed very dramatically, wearing a long robe and a traditional Arabic headwear, and large aviator sunglasses. And he has a very big mustache and he looks quite imposing on stage.

MONTAGNE: Gare says Souleyman sounds imposing, as well.

GARE: His musician, Reza Sayyed is playing very loud, occasionally very distorted electronic music, and the whole thing feels in a way very trance-like and almost a little angry in a way. It's like they're evoking old spirits. It doesn't sound like any Western wedding music - that's for sure.

MONTAGNE: Omar Souleyman has released hundreds of cassettes of live music, mostly taken from his wedding gigs, and found at music kiosks in Syria and throughout the Middle East. In recent years those recordings have made their way to the U.S. and into the hands of fans of electronic music, leading to appearances and festivals and collaborations with the likes of Bjork.

We're listening to songs from his new album, this recorded in a Brooklyn studio. Through an interpreter, he told us what it means to be a wedding singer.

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) The weddings in Syria are a popular celebration. And music is an intrinsic part of that wedding.

MONTAGNE: So, does this then make weddings an important venue for music in Syria?

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) Yes. And not only that, they are important for experimenting in different kinds of music, and mixing different kinds of musical heritage.

MONTAGNE: I want to play a song from your new album, "Wenu Wenu."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WENU WENU")

MONTAGNE: Tell us what the instruments we're hearing.

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) We basically rely on the electronic keyboard. Traditionally in weddings, we relied on local musical instruments, such as the buzuq, the rababah, the qanun. I personally like the traditional rhythms more; that was more authentic, in a way. But the world has changed and so has our music

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: At weddings, Souleyman plays continuously for at least three hours with men and women dancing in long lines, holding hands, swiveling their shoulders and stomping in unison, as the singer stirs them up.

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) Yes, I really want to encourage people to enjoy the music. I go around the stage, I clap with my hands, I look at people and I encourage them to dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: I have been told that there is sometimes a poet onstage, who would literally be whispering in your ear and you would be singing it. I mean what would be happening there?

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) The role of the poet is to improvise lyrics about the bride, about the groom, about how they met, about how their lives might develop in the future, and about specificities in that wedding itself.

MONTAGNE: Is there a line or two that you could say to us now, of the sort of lines you might hear?

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) Some of the lyrics is basically a man addressing God, saying: Please, God. I don't want heaven, I don't want paradise, I just want my lover.

MONTAGNE: Wow, that's pretty romantic.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Interpreter) (Foreign language spoken)

SOULEYMAN: Uh-huh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Let's play another song. This is "Ya Yumma," "Oh, Mother?"

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Interpreter) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA YUMMA")

SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

(Through Translator) The song is written from the point of view of a women. And basically it talks about a woman who does not want to marry her cousin. And she is addressing her mother, telling her: I don't want to marry my cousin. I want to marry my lover.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA YUMMA")

SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: If a song like this would have been sung at a wedding? Sometimes it would actually be speaking of the experience they didn't want. A bride might be marrying her cousin.

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) In Northeast Syria, it's kind of a tribal society. And for a woman to marry her cousin is a very typical occurrence. But it's also usually the woman would not want to marry her cousin and would want to marry somebody who she likes. So this song resonates.

MONTAGNE: But I suppose this song suggests something which is romance can still burn in the heart, even if it can't happen precisely in real life.

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) I agree with your interpretation. The song is about lingering passion.

MONTAGNE: It has long been passion and the idea of love that has fueled the music of Omar Souleyman. Now, in the face of hate-fueled war, Souleyman has chosen to remain out of the fray, living just across the border and steadfastly apolitical.

And I'm wondering if you are even able to perform in Syria. I'm thinking that in many parts of the country it might be a difficult time to celebrate and have a wedding.

SOULEYMAN: (Through Translator) No, I have not performed in Syria for over two years. I will not perform in Syria under the current difficult circumstances out of respect for the Syrian society. I don't involve myself in the politics of the country. But I certainly hope that one day we will sing and dance again, as we have always done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

SOULEYMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: That's Syrian singer Omar Souleyman. His new album is called "Wenu Wenu." You can watch Souleyman in concert at NPRMusic.org.

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.