A popular artist on the Syrian folk-pop circuit, Omar Souleyman is a wedding singer specializing in a high-octane version of dabke, a traditional style of music performed during line dances at weddings and other celebrations. A prolific artist, Souleyman and his band have recorded over 500 cassettes — mostly live recordings made at his wedding gigs — that have become a staple of music kiosks in major Syrian cities. Cutting a striking figure with his oversized sunglasses and mustache, Souleyman, a soulful but fairly conventional vocalist, is better known for his outlandish live performances — bizarre, carnivalesque affairs featuring breakneck techno-style synths and beats, with collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Mahmoud Harbi whispering lyrics into Souleyman’s ear.
In 2007, U.S. label Sublime Frequencies issued Souleyman's Western world debut, a collection culled from cassette releases entitled Highway to Hassake. Dabke 2020 and Jazeera Nights followed in 2009 and 2010. Souleyman, whose music has become increasingly sampled by international DJs — began touring in Europe and the United States to large audiences. In 2011, after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, he relocated to Turkey.
That year he was booked for a slot at the Glastonbury Festival, and was chosen by Caribou for All Tomorrow's Parties' Nightmare Before Christmas event. He issued more cassettes in Syria from his Western travels, and the compilation Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts on Sublime Frequencies. The album featured selections by Souleyman and his band performing across Europe, in Australia, and in the United States. Souleyman also remixed "Crystalline," from Björk's series of singles preceding the release of Biophilia; he recorded the cut "Mawal" as a B-side for the project. In October of 2013, he released Wenu Wenu, on Domino's Ribbon Music imprint. The set was produced by Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, and was Souleyman's first album to be primarily recorded in a Western studio. After a pair of global tours (he played a widely celebrated set at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2013), he signed to Modeselektor's Monkeytown label and recorded Bahdeni Nami, which was released in the summer of 2015. The album featured production collaborations with his label bosses as well as Hebden, Gilles Peterson, Legowelt, and Black Lips. Souleyman played the world's music festivals in support and toured both the U.K. and the United States extensively, but was not able to return to Syria due to its civil war. Homesick and moved by the plight of his people for peace, he began recording again in 2016. The electronic experiments of the previous few years influenced his new music profoundly, though he never wavered from his wild brand of dabke. He worked with producer/arranger Hasan Alo, who placed even more focus on elaborate electronic architectures with a significant techno slant. Lyrically, Souleyman continued to work with longtime collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad. The finished album, To Syria with Love, was thematically focused on an emotional connection to the land and its people; it expressed Souleyman's exile and heartache at the destruction and war that plagued his country. The pre-release single "Ya Bnayyah" was issued in April on Mad Decent with "Chobi appearing in May. The full-length was released in early June. ~ Dave Shim