Syria’s Omar Souleymen appears at The Budgie Smuggler (The Bakery) as part of the Fringe World opening this Friday, January 23, with support from Usurper Of Modern Medicine.  LIZA DEZFOULI reports.

On his third visit to Australia, ‘Syrian techno’ musician, Omar Souleyman, is keen to reconnect with his audiences here. 

“I have been to Australia already two times on tour and have been to all the big Australian cities,” he says through a translator. “My audience there is very enthusiastic and I am happy to return, always.”

The one-time mason who hails from Ra’s al’-Ayn, a Syrian town in the north-eastern region of Jazeera, has since 1996 been ‘repurposing’ his native land’s traditional dabke music, a widely popular style of folk dance music played at social gatherings in many parts of the Arab world. In recent years this form of folk music, which sees men and women dance together in a large circle, has enjoyed a real resurgence in popularity. Dabke is built around intricate instrumental leads, sermonising vocals, along with pounding trance-inducing rhythms, sharing structural similarities with Western electronic dance music.

As a child in his hometown, Souleyman first heard Syrian folk music played on a long-necked lute called a bouzouki and a rebab, a single-stringed fiddle, both traditional instruments used throughout Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands. Over the last 20 years, however, dabke musicians like himself have been incorporating synthesisers and four-on-the-floor drum machines into their compositions.
In 2013, after 20 years of performing, Souleyman released his first studio album, Wenu Wenu (via UK label, Ribbon Music) although he has recorded five LPs of material released through the American ethnographic music label Sublime Frequencies, accompanied on these by his long time musical colleagues Ali Shaker (electric saz) and Rizan Sa’id on synthesiser. According to Souleyman, the recording of Wenu Wenu is ‘nearly live.’ It includes a very old Kurdish song, Warni Warni, featuring electronic percussion on top of a techno-folk beat. A second CD is on its way.
Despite the presence of technical sounds in his music, Souleyman insists he’s a traditional musician making traditional Syrian music. His career owes much of its beginnings to bootleg recordings and You Tube videos made at Syrian weddings which quickly found their way around the Middle East. Bjork used his music in her Crystalline series.
Where does Souleyman reckon his music sits in the arena of modern Syrian music? “I do not know if you mean contemporary music, music today? I am not sure about ‘modern’ music. My music is very traditional and this way of music has existed for a long time in my region but it changes too with the time.” Souleyman maintains he never set out to achieve fame in the West; it just happened. He refutes any suggestion of playing to Western tastes. “I have never changed or tried to adopt my music to anyone’s taste. I stay true to my tradition, always. The West has discovered my music gradually.”
Does he see himself as a kind of ambassador for Syrian folk music? “I do not see or try to do anything like this purposely,” he answers. “It is possible and maybe true that since I take my music to many different and faraway places in the world, I become something like this – inadvertently – but I did not set out to do that or in any way claim to represent.

“My music is for everyone who wants to listen to it, in Syria or anywhere else in the world. My music is traditional music from my region and speaks of love and simple things in life.”

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