Most wedding singers would kill to be in Omar Souleyman's shoes. For years one of Syria's best-known bards for hire, he's gone from performing regionally for happy brides and grooms – getting them pumped up with a frenetic brand of Arabic "dabke," a style of music and dance popular across the Middle East – to playing some of the hottest music festivals in Europe and the United States, winning praise from critics and endorsements from Damon Albarn and Björk.
These days, even people who don't speak a word of Arabic go wild for Souleyman's plaintive cries about love won and lost. At a performance at FYF Fest in Los Angeles this summer, Souleyman sauntered onstage dressed in his trademark red-checkered kaffiyeh, dark sunglasses, trimmed mustache and sleek gallabiya robe and the audience greeted him with chants of "O-mar! O-mar!"
"At the beginning, it was surprising for me to see an audience reacting to me like this, but I kind of got used to it," he tells Rolling Stone the next day in downtown Los Angeles. He's huddled around a MacBook with tinny speakers, through which an interpreter called in from Beirut via Skype.
Souleyman hopes to continue his rise with the release of Wenu Wenu, his first studio album recorded for a Western audience, out this week. Produced by the U.K. electronic artist Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. Four Tet, the album features everything a Souleyman fan could ask for, including the driving, dancefloor-ready drum-machine beats and dizzying synthesizer runs of his longtime keyboardist, Rizan Sa'id. But Four Tet gives the album a smooth, club-friendly mix, making it a bit more inviting for those not attuned to the nuances of Arabic pop.
The album may be perfect party material, but there's little reason to celebrate in Souleyman's home country. As a civil war has raged in Syria over the past two years, Souleyman and his family have been forced to leave their hometown, Ras Al-Ayn, for the safer confines of Turkey. Even for a musician who sings about matters of the heart, the war presents a variety of dangers, including unsafe roads and radical Islamist rebels who declare music to be sinful.
Considering all of the destruction and disarray that the war has wrought, one might consider the title track from Wenu Wenu – a relentless, seven-minute dance-floor banger whose title means "Where Is She?"– to be an allegorical tribute to Souleyman's beloved home country. Over whirls of nasal, rubbery synth and a relentless beat resembling amped-up reggaeton, Souleyman cries out to a lover who's no longer by his side: "How are you doing, my treasure? You're always on my mind."
Asked about this interpretation, though, Souleyman insists that the song has nothing to do with Syria. "It's just about love," he says. The topic of war makes Souleyman get a little agitated; he twists and tears a tiny piece of paper in his fingers. Like many civilians, he has opted not to take sides in the conflict. He said he's never felt pressure to join any political parties, or lend support to the government.
"I'm not with any party. I'm just with security and peace in Syria," he says.
While some audiophiles and record collectors love Souleyman's music for its raw, stripped-down vibe, some urbane fans of Middle Eastern music can't stand it for the very same reason. Shayna Silverstein, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Syrian dance music, says she once went to a Souleyman show where a couple of concertgoers from Beirut, the cosmopolitan capital of Lebanon, crinkled their nose at the singer.
"They said, 'Oh, I don't understand why he is representing our culture. They should really invite Marcel Khalife,'" Silverstein says, referring to a world-renowned Lebanese composer and musician whose flowery concert-hall performances are about as far away from Souleyman's rough-and-tumble Hassake sound as you can get.
For all the troubles going on in Syria, and all the naysayers who've pooh-poohed his tunes, Souleyman has undoubtedly made major career strides. Nowadays, if most wedding singers have to hustle, he's much choosier when he performs at weddings. "Only if it was someone related to me, or a real close friend," he says.