Some artists hire hot, scantily clad women to sell their music for them. Omar Souleyman keeps his set up simple. Meet the man turned global sensation who sings to sitars wearing a signature red checkered keffiyeh and jalabiya gown.
More commonly referenced with irony within the sphere of commercial Western music, Omar Souleyman's sitar littered, traditional Syrian sounds have previously garnered him only niche recognition. Until now. Releasing over 500 albums to date, establishing himself performing at local village weddings, the bulk of Omar's hypnotic, world folk material was all originally recorded at weddings and then gifted in hardcopy to each new husband and wife pairing. Hype around him exploded and rips of the albums began surfacing in their thousands. Now regarded sensationally as the Arabic equivalent to Justin Beiber, Omar's celebratory, arousing signature “dabke” sound has garnered him a mass fanbase across the Middle East. Extraordinarily positive despite enduring the serious conflict in his home country, Omar writes mainly about love, dramatically delivering the pain and pleasure he has experienced.
First performing at Glastonbury in 2011 and then the Caribou curated ATP festival later that same year, Omar's public profile has since gone global. Releasing five internationally distributed studio albums to date via obscure, cult Washington imprint Sublime Frequencies, the 47 year old Ra’s al-‘Ayn born artist is an anomaly. On the brink of releasing his next album, along with Four Tet producer Kieran Hebdben, Omar returns to London for the fifth time to play shows for his current European tour. Unfamiliar with chart music but hoping to become a fixture on its top ten spot anytime soon, Omar hung out with i-D in Dalston one dank November evening to discuss love and music.
When did you first come to London?
What did you make of the culture?
When l was first in the UK, we went to a city called Bristol and I performed, then we went to London and then other parts of the UK. I liked Britain a lot, the environment and people were fair, the general civilization felt good.
Can you remember the first wedding you ever performed at?
Yes, it was in a nearby village to my home and the wedding had visitors and invitees from other villages and at that time nobody there knew me. I think I did well so it was a surprise to the village, l began singing at more weddings and people started singing about me.
What impact does it have on you, being the source of entertainment at such a special day?
After I sang at that first wedding, it was a very successful experience so I started getting requests from other villages asking me to come and sing at their weddings and that is something that I’m really proud of.
Do you consider performing at weddings to be your calling?
To an extent, yes, because a wedding is an occasion of joy for the people there and not just the people of one village but for other villages. If you compare it with how things are now of course it was a very good thing to do. Through weddings I was able to meet new people, to meet the community around me and also to make some money and to work on my profile as a singer, which improved after that.
Are you married?
Yes, I am married.
Who performed at your wedding?
Nobody, nobody sang at my wedding because it wasn’t actually a traditional wedding due to family circumstances, the death of someone.
How do you remain optimistic? Your music is very positive.
By carefully selecting the words of my songs and also carefully selecting tunes that feel positive. We make sure that the songs will all be liked by the listeners.
What’s the main lyrical focus of the music?
The lyrics of the songs focus mainly on love, it’s different forms and it’s different aspects. Some songs are about meeting someone, jealousy, separation, some could be about unrequited love, when a man loves a woman and she loves someone else. I rarely go out of the circle of love when I write lyrics.
How did you first know when you were in love?
Love is a problem.
Why is it a problem?
Because so much torture is involved, turmoil, love is tormenting and jealousy is problematic.
Do you listen to Western chart music?
Only slow music.
Are you considered a pop star in your own country? I
can’t tell but people say things about me, they say that I did well, that I became famous internationally.
How has working with Kieran (Four Tet) changed your approach to understanding sound?
Kieran mainly focused on providing sound engineering. He provided only the sound engineering side of the production while myself and the keyboard player did the actual singing and music.
And of the 500 albums that you’ve produced, which one album should we listen to next?