On June 6, 2012, I went to the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC to see a performance by Syrian singer Omar Souleyman and Dengue Fever (a group form Los Angeles that specializes in Cambodian psychedelic rock). It was a bizarre experience to say the least.
Souleyman was catapulted to prominence in the United States by, Sublime Frequencies—a record label that scours the globe for hipster exotica. While its catalog features some really exceptional music, it is sometimes hard to avoid the queasy feeling that the artistic quality is almost irrelevant and it is the novelty that is being marketed. The record label has promoted Souleyman’s recordings on its website and he is now regularly featured at music festivals across the United States and Europe, including Moogfest 2010 (a music festival in honor of one of the pioneers of synthesizers) where he shared billing with MGMT, Cee-Lo, and a host of big name touring acts. Here is a description of Souleyman from the Sublime Frequencies website:
Omar Souleyman is a Syrian musical legend. Since 1994, he and his musicians have emerged as a staple of folk-pop throughout Syria, but until now they have remained little known outside of the country. To date, they have issued more than five-hundred studio and live- recorded cassette albums which are easily spotted in the shops of any Syrian city.
Unfortunately this is simply not the case. While a talented performer (his keyboardist is even more gifted) Souleyman is virtually unknown to large swaths of the Syrian population. Before being plucked from relative obscurity by Sublime Frequencies, Souleyman plied his trade as a wedding singer traveling around rural parts of Northeast Syria. While he may have been fairly well known in these rural regions, it seems a bit of a reach to call him a “legend”. In many ways this is where the story gets complicated. Souleyman is an authentic representative of parts of rural Syria. His music is infused not only with Syrian Debke, but also with Iraqi Chobbi, Kawliya (“gyspsy”), and is also influenced by the Egyptian pop music industry. While he may not be featured on Syrian national television or Arabic language video clip stations, this does not make his music any less important or authentic. Along with those of many other similar singers, Souleyman’s cassette tapes can be found in the thriving markets at inter-city bus terminals across the country. As an outsider, it often feels to me that Souleyman’s fame has been entirely serendipitous and that his was just the first cassette tape “discovered” by someone backpacking across the Middle East who was connected to Sublime Frequencies.
So, what is being sold and why did a couple hundred people, most without any Arab heritage, come to hear the performance? What were their expectations? While it is perhaps impossible to divine the intentions of an audience, a look at how Souleyman is marketed and promoted gives us some insight into the audience’s perspective. Sublime Frequencies describes Souleyman’s music as: “shrill Syrian electronics played out like forbidden morse-code,” which seems to only reinforce the notion that Souleyman is being marketed as much for his novelty as his music.
Even for Arab-Americans in the audience, Souleyman can be difficult to comprehend in this context. Of all the tremendous cultural output from the Middle East, why has a wedding singer, albeit a talented wedding singer, somehow become cool in the U.S. indie music scene? One Arab-American woman at the concert was almost convinced that Souleyman was an American playing a character, in the vein of Borat or The Dictator. She had not been familiar with him before and, because he presented such an over-the-top version of a rural Syrian, he seemed like a caricature to her.
Looks like Omar Souleyman is a phenomenon worth keeping an eye on…