Omar Souleyman has been a star in the middle east since the mid-’90s and has released more than five hundred studio and live albums. Because of his ability to mix Arabic music with electronic beats, his infectious exotic dancefloors took the west by surprise: Souleyman turned global around 2010, and soon, he was collaborating with Bjork, Four Tet, Damon Albarn, and Diplo and playing music festivals all over the world. I discovered him at the FYF Fest in 2013 and saw him twice after that: he headlined one of Santa Monica’s twilight concerts during the summer of 2014 and Henry Rollins had an intimate conversation with him at the Grammy Museum the following month. An unexpected rock star, his show at the Santa Monica pier had the sounds and colors of an EDM party led by an Arabic prince wearing a long white robe, a red and white kaffiyeh, and his signature dark sunglasses. His hypnotic Middle-eastern rhythms are reworked with synth and drum machines, and you sometimes don’t know if you are listening to a traditional number or the latest cut from some electro dance music star.
Despite the language barrier, Souleyman’s music works marvelously on a western audience, as his passion for music and sincerity spoke volumes. From wedding singer to pop star, Souleyman’s music is at the convergence of multiple influences coming from Turkey, Iraq, and other old influences he has modernized… While talking to Rollins, Souleyman appeared like a very modest and quiet man, only interested in composing music (mostly love songs for weddings) and making people happy. He looked like a man of peace coming from a country that has a hard time finding peace: “Some singer sings in one color,” he said at one point, “but the land I am from belongs to multiple people so I try to sing in many colors to make everyone happy and the music as welcoming as possible.”
I was very sad to read that Omar Souleyman has been arrested in Turkey on terrorism charges. According to the Guardian, Souleyman was taken into custody by officers who searched his home in the south-eastern province of Şanlıurfa, a city located in southeastern Turkey. Souleyman left his country (Syria) after the war and settled in Turkey with his family like millions of Syrian refugees. Souleyman’s son has denied the terrorism charges – as he was accused to be a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the UK, EU, and the US – saying that his father had no political affiliations and that a “malicious report” had been filed against him.
“What does music mean to you” Henry Rollins had asked him in 2014. “This is a good and important question,… People hear the music and dance. This is the power of music, I wish people would understand lyrics, they would be happier! Music is peace for everybody,” had answered Souleyman who amazingly never talked about war or politics during the entire conversation. His arrestation is worrisome and I hope he will be fine.
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