Omar Souleyman hails from the small town of Ras Al Ain, located in northeasten Syria near the Iraqi and Turkish borders, in a region called the Jazeera. It was there, in the mid-1990s, that he began his singing career at the age of 30. Omar was encouraged by friends after singing at a handful of weddings, and he soon began taking the new endeavor seriously, performing at local events backed by traditional instruments such as the ney, violin, hand percussion and saz.
In 1996, Omar approached a young local musician – Rizan Sa’ id – who had been performing on keyboards with local groups. Rizan, a talented multi-instrumentalist, began playing with Omar at a time when a new wave of dabke (the regional folkloric dance and party music) was emerging in the Levant. Armed with whatever Arabic-modified synthesizers could be had at the time, Rizan lent a distinctive and driving sound – incorporating Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish and other Arabic styles, resulting in some of the most furious dabke sounds to be heard in the 1990s and 2000s.
Depending on what a wedding host could afford, Omar and Rizan would perform as a duo or occasionally as an embellished mini-ensemble featuring saz, percussion, ney and violin. Hamid Souleyman, a local saz and bozouk luminary, joined forces with Omar for several years until he relocated to Germany in 2002. Another local bozouk and saz player – the young Ali Shaker – began playing with Omar at that time.
Syria in the 1990s was fairly isolated from the rest of the world, without internet or cellular phones or a wealth of imported products from the West – a strikingly different country from what it is today. The extant cassette tape networks of the time moved slowly, but it wasn’t long before Omar’ s distinctive image, adorned with his trademark khaffiya and sunglasses, could be seen at nearly every cassette kiosk in the country. Ras Al Ain producer and label-owner Zuhir Maksi was first responsible for getting Omar’ s name to a dabke-loving population throughout Syria. Zuhir recorded and released countless early Omar recordings and was also one of the first people to whisper poetry and rhymes in Omar’ s ear while he sang. This would continue as Omar began working with revered local poets Mahmoud Harbi and Hassan Hamadi, among others.
This age old poet and singer relationship is a tradition in the region and often employs the poetry form called the ataba – a form of folk poetry still employed today. During a concert, the poet often stands very near to Souleyman, following him into the circle of dabke line-dancers, and whispering verses relevant to the event and the families that host it into Omar’ s ears. Acting as a conduit, Souleyman strides into the audience, vocalizing the prose in song before returning for the next verse.
Souleyman’ s first hit in Syria was Jani (1996), which gained cassette-kiosk infamy and brought him recognition throughout the country. Jani became popular via a live wedding concert tape as opposed to a studio recording, as sometimes happens with Syrian dabke tracks. Since that time, well over 500 cassette tapes have been issued – and more recently MP3 discs and VCDs. A large percentage of these cassettes feature long-form live recordings from weddings. The tapes often start and stop abruptly and contain one long medley that cuts on side A and resumes on side B, usually edited haphazardly throughout by its producer. The purpose of these cassette recordings are to keep a singer’s name alive and in demand for weddings and events.
Additionally, Omar and Rizan have produced several studio albums in Syria over the years. These have a different sound than the wedding cassettes – cleaner and more calculated – and have also yielded significant dabke hits. Khataba, for instance, was Omar’ s 2005 studio hit that put him on the pan-Arab map.
Over the years, Souleyman’ s popularity rose steadily among the dabke folk scene, and the group performed tirelessly throughout Syria and also accepted invitations to perform abroad in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.
In 1997, Mark Gergis, a California-based musician and collaborator with the Sublime Frequencies label, encountered Souleyman’s cassettes during a trip to Syria. After collecting his tapes for a decade, Gergis finally met Souleyman, resulting in his initial collaboration with the label. In 2007, Sublime Frequencies released Highway to Hassake, the first compilation of his works to be issued in the West.
An excerpt from the liner notes to Highway to Hassake:
“Here, classical Arabic mawal-style vocalization gives way to high-octane Syrian Dabke (the regional folkloric dance and party music), Iraqi Choubi and a host of Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish styles, among others. This amalgamation is truly the sound of Northeastern Syria. The music often has an overdriven sound consisting of phase-shifted Arabic keyboard solos and frantic rhythms. At breakneck speeds, these shrill Syrian electronics play out like forbidden morse-code, but the moods swing from coarse and urgent to dirgy and contemplative in the rugged anthems that comprise Souleyman’s repertoire.
The collection was culled from cassettes recorded between 1995 and 2009 – and offered a rare glimpse into Syrian street-level folk-pop – a phenomenon seldom heard in the West, not previously deemed serious enough for export by the Syrians and rarely included on the import agenda of academic musical committees.”
The enthusiastic response to Highway to Hassake and the internet-video created for the album’s opening track, Leh Jani led to Omar being invited to tour the UK and Europe during the summer of 2009. It would be his first time performing or travelling outside of the Arab world.
Five western-released albums, multiple world tours and a 2011 collaboration with Icelandic artist Björk, have rapidly elevated Souleyman to the status of a cult international legend. The rise of Omar's success has transcended the wedding halls and cassette stalls of Syria and slipped into western popular consciousness. Despite there being no shortage of musical talent in Syria, Omar Souleyman is the first Syrian musician to have won the hearts of both westerners and Arabs on this scale.
– Mark Gergis, 2011