Omar Souleyman, Western idol unknown to Arabs

Omar Souleyman

Omar Souleyman

KOKO, one of London’s most iconic music venues, is celebrating a fresh talent from Syria. Omar Souleyman, a 49-year-old father of 9, escaped Syria and his life as a farmer to turn into an electronic-music singer.  He performs on stage as in his “jalabiya” and “keffiyeh,” traditional Arab garments, along with his aviator shades.

His “electro-dabke,” mixes Middle Eastern folk music and Western Electro music with a mix of Arabic words and phrases. Adapted by Kieran Hebden (who goes by the name Four Tet), a British producer, Souleyman’s music seems to satisfy an urge for the exotic among the youth of England’s capital.

His fans argue he encourages a cultural curiosity that is hard to achieve through other means. According to the Economist, those at his shows are embracing Arab culture or at least, the closest variant they can get, and this can only be a positive sign in the current climate of ill-feeling towards the Middle East. Mark Gergis, a musician and producer who introduced Souleyman to Western audiences in 2006, wanted to “humanise Syria after it had suffered years of demonisation”.

His lyrics focus on the agony of being in love and portray Syrians as ordinary people with ordinary emotions. This sets him apart from other Syrians and musicians who express their war suffering. People are criticizing Souleyman’s fans as being westerners who don’t exactly understand what he’s saying, but despite that he’s becoming an idol to vast numbers of European party-goers, and has performed at some of the biggest festivals on the continent.

But many Syrians never heard of him and those who did criticise his “show.” a Syrian student, said “he represents nothing of our real Syrian culture…our country is already destroyed…we do not want any further destruction of our culture.”

Four Tet, the producer who started Souleyman’s career in the West, has always boasted about how little he had to adapt the original music. But people could argue that it’s not authentic enough to simply put an electro beat behind traditional tunes.

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