My name is Rafi, a Syrian-Palestinian musician. Growing up, I knew about Omar Souleyman, but in the Middle East his music is considered cheesy, or maybe only for weddings. After moving to Berlin I got to discover that he represents a unique phenomenon in the Western world. I was surprised by his popularity here, his success and fame amongst hipsters. I tried to understand how he acquired this status. I started to research him and asked a few people to tell me their opinion about his music. Their task was to describe their feelings about Omar Souleyman upon listening to his last released album. Here are their thoughts:
My name is Zamfira, I am a doctor and lover of the arts. Growing up as a Romanian I had contact with different types and genres of music. From Balkan, Arabic or Turkish music, to folklore, Gipsy and our renowned `manele`. In my hometown there is also a tradition of rock music and nearby there is a big jazz festival happening every year. When I was growing up I was listening mostly to rock, like Tom Waits, Bod Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead, but also to Balkan gypsy music like Goran Bregović or Zdob si Zdub etc. I also have a lot of musicians and instrumentalists in my family, so classical music and opera were very normal in our house.
Around my mid 20s I decided not to be influenced any more just by trends of friends or categorize music by `cool` or `uncool` and started listening more from the `heart`, not just from the `mind`. So I added to my playlists some pop songs, just because I liked the tunes. I know most of the pop songs are cheesy and the videos are superficial but the music and the energy is what counts for me in the end. And I have always enjoyed dancy, happy and powerful music.
Omar Souleyman became actually `cool` in the underground Romanian communities, because he was exotic. He has this untouchable, unenthusiasticm, blasé attitude making him somehow mysterious. Only when I moved to Berlin I got to see him in concert, but by then it was nothing exotic for me anymore, as I had already seen many Arabic and international bands and musicians. I must confess I don`t understand a word he is saying or the meaning of the lyrics, but I enjoy his music every time I listen to it, even find myself singing along. I obviously love also his style, this older and serious guy with Arabic folkloric shawl, black jellabiya and dark sunglasses. His stern mood makes him deliberate and contrasts the jolly beats he is singing.
His last album is of all the stuff he made, the cherry on the top of the cake. And perfect to bring happiness and a dancy mood to any occasion. It makes you loose, moving the hips and exploring freestyle dance variations. The quick rhythms, repetitive mantra-like words and folkloric elements are just delicious. His music gives a lot of energy and releases joy.
My name is Miranda, and I can’t decide if Omar Souleyman is terrible or terribly fun. I’m no stranger to cheesy Middle Eastern music. I spent the majority of my 20s blaring Amr Diab anytime the weather was warm and I wanted to dance and pretend I knew Arabic. One thing is clear: Souleyman can sure get a room of drunk people moving. In fact the drunker you are, the better it sounds. But just like other decisions made when intoxicated, there’s a feeling or embarrassment, maybe even regret, the morning after. Did I really shake my ass to Warni Warni for two hours straight last night?
Then again, although there may be some regretful moments, isn’t this some of the best music? The kind that you don’t have to respect or learn, rather just feel? It’s the kind of music that is essentially a stand-in to represent an entire culture, an entire world. Souleyman’s music sounds like what non-Arabic speakers imagine Arabic music to sound like. One could argue that in this way, Omar Souleyman’s music serves as a gateway: a “Middle Eastern music for beginners” if you will. Simple, happy, accessible to all. Emblematic of what modern Arabic music sounds and feels like, and what the fans of this music enjoy most.
Whether or not Souleyman’s music is “cheesy” is debatable. What is undeniable however is that the man is onto something. His busy performance schedule and enthusiastic fans are a testament to his success. And Souleyman lets the music speak for itself: while concert-goers and wedding guests are losing their minds in the quick beats and catchy melodies, Souleyman the man remains almost untouchable and never appears to be trying too hard. In fact he is one of the few performers I’ve ever seen who clearly doesn’t consider it their job to “ramp up” the audience.
So, sure. Let’s grant that Souleyman has catchy, fun, danceable music. What justifies thesold-out stadiums? I’d argue that Souleyman’s very person is central to his allure. No, the man is not a hot young stud. Yet his style is absolutely his brand. Any 12-year old could sketch his ironclad look on a notepad: jellabiya, scarf, black sunglasses (has anyone ever seen him without them?) and perhaps a hint of a grin. He is weathered, mature. Confident and calm. Souleyman comes from a small yet relatively diverse town in northern Syria and he honors these roots and in his music: Arab, Assyrian, Kurdish, with Turkey and Iraq as neighboring influences. Whatever your opinion of his music, you can’t accuse him of inauthenticity. A man with distasteful strategies? Maybe. A sell out? Perhaps. But he’s doing something right.
As you can see Omar Souleyman is still on the peak. He developed a strong image and identity and an immense exposure internationally through his tunes. As an artist myself I have to give him the credit and respect he deserves. Enjoy his new album!