You would be hard-pressed to find a more apt embodiment of how globalization has affected the music world than Omar Souleyman. It has been quite a journey for the artist, a wedding singer from the rural village of Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria. Since the beginning, he has continued to present his distinct style of celebratory music, a buoyant sound anchored by his inspired ululations.
Only in recent years, this style has been presented to the world at large on a scale previously unimaginable. He has garnered attention from the likes of electronic producer Four Tet (brought on board to help tighten the production on his 2013 LP Wenu Wenu) to Björk, with whom Souleyman collaborated on an EP of remixes behind her 2011 album Biophilia. To this day, one will still hear his superb reworking of “Crystalline” out in the club.
Souleyman’s newest album is To Syria, With Love, his first signed to Diplo’s label Mad Decent, which is getting its physical release this weekend. It comes at quite an interesting time, a time that has seen the singer ejected from the United States due to President Trump’s travel ban, forcing the cancellation of his tour.
We caught up with Omar to discuss creating the record, the way in which his art (for better or worse) has become politicized and what it was like working with Björk.
Tell us a bit about the creation of your new album To Syria With Love. How did it all come together?
It’s a collection of songs that are very dear to me; all beautiful songs that I have known and sang for a long time; the right moment came to record them in the studio. I had Hasan Alo by my side on keyboards for this one and that too made all the difference in the world. As well as a long time friend/poet for the lyrics.
The timing of your latest release has been parallel to President Trump’s (unconstitutional) travel ban which has affected you directly – what has that experience been like?
I went to the US on tour in May 2017 and that worked out well despite the travel restrictions that were announced. But then in September of this year – I couldn’t go on my scheduled tour – I did not get a visa. So that of course is a great shame, that it seems like I cannot return to the US any more. I have been there at least 17 or 18 times in my career since 2010. It’s a shame that all the work that goes into planning such tours is wasted, the audience is disappointed, and all of this is and was very upsetting.
Do you feel an obligation to use your work as a platform to discuss issues like the above or does it speak for itself?
No, not at all. My music and my work don’t address anything like that. The music is not about such things – very far from it.
What is one of your earliest musical memories?
I remember some singers from our region coming to the house and singing there.
How did you become a wedding singer? Has there been a wedding you performed at that proved to be particularly memorable?
Well, in our part of the world, music’s main venue is the wedding or other party or celebration. That is where one can sing if anywhere. I started little by little. In the beginning I was given short slots of maybe one or two songs – 10 minutes – and then later more and more.
You now have an audience on a massive, international stage – what does that feel like? Do you feel like your work or method of working has changed because of it?
I am glad for it – of course. I see the audience growing and I am very proud because of that. Nothing has changed really and I don’t intend to change the way I do music. There is no need for that. People enjoy it just the way it is.
Your Björk remixes are stunning and are still played out in clubs regularly – can you speak a bit on how those came about?
Well, Björk asked for me to record some songs for her. And so I did, I recorded three songs in the studio for her. Then later she sang on them some, and they were mixed like that. I think they came out very good.
What do you do when you have a day off completely to yourself?
I never have a day off to myself to be honest. If it’s a day off at home – it’s all my family around me – so it is all about them.
Look out for the physical edition of ‘To Syria, With Love’ to hit shelves this Friday, November 3.
For more of our interviews, read our chat with Gucci Mane’s protege Lil Wop right here.