Omar Souleyman

He is a legend in north Africa. Omar Souleyman in about 15 years has recorded around 500 studio and live albums and apparently has a godlike status in Syria, his country. Originally his music orbits around Syrian folk-pop, it is sung in Arabic and his audience is mainly in North-African countries.

Recently Omar Souleyman has became the hype of the indie blogosphere. He has been picked up by Pavement for their “exotic” slot on the second day at their All Tomorrow Parties festival. The hype mounted so fast that the third stage at Minehead centre was packed of thousands of guys wearing Pavement/Pixies/Sonic Youth/Dinosaur Jr T-shirts dancing to the disco music of Souleyman.
Among these fans the Dodos drummer who played Dodos’ set the day after wearing the official Souleyman T-Shirt.

I’ll probably talk about Dodos’ nice set on another post. What I want to talk today is Omar Souleyman. I don’t want to cover his concert but analyze the peculiar reception of such a conservative audience, as indie listeners are, to his music.

A discussion that started between me and some friends soon after his gig and ended in the Minehead chalet only due to exhaustion of the participants after 12 hours of concerts.

Let’s clean the field from misunderstandings. As a radical lover of alternative music (self-consciousness often helps) I am not into (read “I hate”) dance/disco/techno music of any form. It goes without saying, dancing.
I can’t judge Omar Souleyman set from a musical perspective nor I could dance to it.

What I want to discuss is why Omar Souleyman is having such a cult following spreading among audiences that usually, like me, rants against love parades, raves, discos, techno DJs set and anything that shifts from indie-purity (I’ll get there in a sec) to chemically enhanced (apparently) fake fun.

Why is Souleyman, that sings songs that have inheritance of middle-east-north-Africa folk over a music that comes from the western (European) tradition of discos beat, “cool” to the indie circuit?

Generally North-Africa/Middle east songs have never appealed to European audiences as other kind of “world” music. They are neither as rhythmic or bluesy as western Africa tunes, nor as danceable and carefree as South American carnivals. The Arabic language reminds more of a muezzin lament inviting the muslims to prey that of a DJ inviting people to dance. Very few people understand the lyrics.

The electronic-synth-disco beat is ideologically rejected by alternative rock audiences since the Smiths wrote Panic.

“Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
Hang the blessed DJ

Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ”

remember that?

Omar Souleyman songs are exactly the fusion of these two aspects.

A classic 80s-90s techno disco generated by synthesizers and looped by computers, merged with a traditional African instrument and, of course, his singing over the electronic base.
Another strategic aspect is his huge ego who constantly seeks for the acknowledgment of the crowd throughout the entire set. It makes him more a showman than a singer, who’s need of drawing attention on himself someway seduces a public which is tendentially shy and introvert.

What you can do with his music is just one thing: dancing.
What 2000 people were doing at 2am was exactly that: dancing.
The colourful, funny, rowsy, awkward kind of dance you see in european (and I guess, American) discos.

Rarely alternative music met this. In fact it tends to refuse this as a principle, it can’t cope with the optimism and questions its levity.

Eccentric clothes, weird make-up, colourful glitter, sexual provocation. Sex on its own. Elements that the indie fan rejects because of the founding principle of “indieness”: it is not authentic. (“it says nothing to me about my life“).

Omar Souleyman does sing over this sort of rhythms. I don’t know about what, I guess no one else around me does as well.
A music that has nothing to do with Syria, north-Africa, Middle East or whatever Mediterranean country. Traditionally. This was the fulcrum of the disagreement in the 3am chalet discussion with an anthropologist friend.

To me this music, or at least the key part, its electronic loops is solidly rooted in Europe 80s-90s chemical drugs explosion. It doesn’t belong to Syrian tradition.

The reason why millions of north-Africans may find it fascinating it is understandable. It fulfils two needs at the same time.
The need of dancing, which belongs to any culture, and the myth of the western world discos, which they cannot have as a whole and dream from the small bits they can perceive.

Either banned by their governments or their religions (or both) especially when it comes together with the western frills: platform and pole dancers, funky gay dresses, sexual freedom, high-on-speed drugs and, overall, a sheer desire of having unrestrained fun.
It is understandable why Souleyman succeeds where there is not Fatboy Slim as a competitor but hoards of people dreaming of those myths.

What I am keen to understand, instead, is why his success happens also where Djs are available and having fun is allowed. Why such a music appeals on to the indie-alternative lovers when they would have no problem to access the “real thing”?

The answer lies, once again, in the never too much praised book of Wendy Fonarow, another anthropologist: “Empire of Dirt”.
One of the key thesis in the book is that, let me put it simple, “indie is the new Puritanism”. Reading from the anthropologist’s perspective it makes perfect sense.
Indie is seen as a movement that rebels to any ornament rock music has (pop and disco even worse) to keep the essence of it. The music, deprived of any frills. Exactly as the puritans dissented with the ostentation of the Roman Catholic church centuries ago.

So using her theory my hyperbole goes straight to the point.
The need of dancing to a techno beat, at the same time a desire and a taboo to the indie guy because of the rejection of all the embellishments that come with that dance culture (which are considered symbols of market/majors/capitalism unreal world), vanishes in Omar Souleyman music.

He doesn’t have them. Souleyman comes on stage dressed on an Arabic tunic, wearing a keffiyeh. He brings with him two musicians (that do most of the job). One is sternly dedicated to the electro-synth-dance beats but is not dressed in glitter and piercing. He doesn’t dance, he doesn’t engage the audience. He plays his unadorned keys as they exited the instrument shop (no frills? checked). The other musician is sitting very focused, he plays his traditional setar. He has the role of the one adding the world-music and the visual imagery of a world-music set. Which is not.

Omar Souleyman sings not understandable words over a techno-dance set, the backbone, with the arabic image which on the surface differentiates him from half-naked sexually explicit platform dancers, the unnecessary frills.

This is cool. This looks and sounds cool. This is different, exclusive. The essence of “indieness”, hence indie loves him.

Omar Souleyman is succesful in his world, because he is tolerated by his governments not because it is cool. Because it does not contains (and sells and provokes) with the threats of the “devil”. The sexual provocation that goes along with disco music is replaced by an innocuous, talented and very funny man in sunglasses.

He is cool for Pavement that called him to play their ATP.
He is cool for the indie guy because He’s “real” enough. The techno-beat Souleyman revisits covered in a mild world music, feels at the same time literate and “Puritan”.

So what? You may argue. What is wrong in Omar Souleyman music? What’s my problem?
Nothing at all with him or the music. I am not criticising the music.

What upsets me is not the music. It is the sense of frustration that this seems to hide. It is that rigid definition of “coolness” who defines the belonging to a tribe.
I don’t understand why the indie music lover cannot enjoy Pavement’s Range Life one night then go to have fun in a London Soho disco bar on the weekend, dancing like mad showing off your sexy side, looking at pole dancers and enjoying Lady Gaga eccentricity?

What hides behind the need of accepting this only if it is veiled behind a red and white keffiyeh worn by a Syrian man? In Syria, Libya or wherever Omar Souleyman sells his 500 albums because there are not the others. People doesn’t have neither the choice nor the freedom. They do not have another kind of disco music. They do not have acess to the same Djs and the same venues.

Here there is. Ibiza or Manchester offer dance option to have fun, why the need of a surrogate.
Damasco has much more to offer than a westernized version of Arabic music or, worse, a North-African version of Techno. Promptly reviewed by someone a “Jihadi Techno” a horrible and racist definition which offends at the same time Jihad and Techno.

More on Omar Souleyman is here [myspace]

Photo tip

Some digital DSLR have an LCD display that allow shooting in live view mode.
That is also the standard for all point and shots where image stabilizers and electronics allowed to frame the shot looking at LCD displays instead of the viewfinder.

Live View it is not the best approach when precise composition is needed, but can deliver different and sometime outstanding images when a different angle is needed.

They look different because we are used to seeing photography taken by an angle which is close to human eye. We are accustomed lens length changes but any atypical perspective has an added “wow factor” to an image.

Very often even film photographers mount their wide angles and lift the camera shooting blindly.

I took many of these pictures at Omar Souleyman concert. My eye far from the viewfinder. I don’t mind using the live view function on a DSLR. The mirror (that has to go up, then down then up again) slows down the process and I miss the right moment, I prefer to shoot blindly, with experience (and wideangles) works better.

I was so close to him that I wanted to transmit that feeling of being there. Probably I was a bit frustrated by the gigs shot on the main stage, toohigh with artists far away.

The huge advantage of digital photography is the countless number of shots you have without wasting anything and the possibility to see what you are doing and fine tune the setting. So try, raise your hands, kneel down, tilt your camera and try to frame something different.

~ by Valerio on May 28, 2010.

10 Responses to “Omar Souleyman”

  1. Sounds like you live a pretty sheltered indie life with all your indie friends. How old are you? 16? Whose concept of indie is this? Your own i assume?

  2. Thanks for your comment. I am not in a polemic mood at present, sorry. I am 40.

  3. Interesting analysis, just been listening to his music, didn’t realise he’d played at an ATP! A good read (plus like the camera tips)

    Not sure about the puritanical bit, the indie thing for me has always meant “independent”, ie: not mainstream, Omar is definitely not mainstream (neither is dance music for that matter) and thus why he was received so well. Robbie Williams would have been burnt at the stake at an ATP (and rightly so).

  4. Thanks for your comment, Steve.
    Your “independent” definition holds well for Souleyman in UK, if you go to North Africa he is surely more mainstream than Robbie Williams.

  5. Have you tried taking your head out of your arse? Could help.

  6. I don’t understand why you have mentioned North Africa so much. He is big in the Levent… Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine in particular. His music is not reflective overly of North African music – which is more towards Raï, etc., but definitely a sound between the North Middle East and the Kurdish tones.

  7. Thank You, Hadith… you are right, I should have used the word Mediterranean or Middle East, my fault. Thanks for reading.

  8. Interesting – I read this before going to see him at Moogfest in the US, a (mostly) computer music / DJ / synth-heavy festival. He’s a good fit in that context, makes a lot of sense. I’m not at all an indie puritan, though, so the idea of Omar is intriguing rather than irritating. Omar, followed DJ Spooky and EL-P at Moogfest – the idea of that sort of evening makes me curious.

  9. I just saw him play in San Francisco last night. It was fantastic! Why? Because the music was really good. Do I know what he was talking about? Nope. Probably mostly love and the wooing of the opposite sex, from what I can ascertain from his videos. But it is an indisputable fact that he whipped a Tuesday night crowd into a frenzy. The beats were bangin’, the keyboard player played the LIVING SHIT out of the keys, and Souleyman himself effortlessly held court over a floor of sweaty indie rock types, stinky Burners, nerds, normals and the simply curious. A good time was had by all.

    Now I don’t really understand why you’ve selected Souleyman of all people to be the focus of indie rock to-dance-or-not-to-dance angst. (That’s actually pretty funny when I think about it.) I just want to make the suggestion that maybe…perhaps…possibly…it is, at the end of the day, a net positive that a guy like Souleyman can now come to the West and be embraced by an enthusiastic audience that enjoys his music.

    And if the indie crowd finds this to be a “culturally safe” form of disco dancing, so be it. I personally think that’s hysterical, but hey – it makes the world both a stranger and slightly more interesting place.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Chris.
    I never criticised Souleyman just reflected on the being cool, being different need of the indie world.
    His live set is amazing, agreed!

    On a more serious front I’m wondering if he took any position for or against Syrian government violent reaction against it’s people. His silence would sound louder than his music!

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