JOVM mainstay Omar Souleyman is a Tell Tamer, Syria-born, Istanbul, Turkey-based Sunni Arab vocalist, whose music career started in earnest back in 1994 when he began as a part-time wedding singer. His overall sound has largely been influenced by the incredibly diverse milieu of Northeastern Syria — and as a result, Souleyman and a rotating cast of musicians and producers he has worked with since his early days have found a way to draw from and mesh the sounds and themes of the Kurdish, the Ashuris, the Turks, the Iraqis and the larger Arabic world in a way that’s both familiar and novel. Since then, Souleyman has become the region’s pioneer of dance floor friendly wedding music.
Amazingly since 1994, Souleyman has managed to be wildly prolific, releasing well over 500 studio and live albums with about 80% of those releases made at weddings. Most of those recordings were first presented to the newlywed couple, and then later copied and sold at local kiosks. Souleyman has released four compilation albums and three full-length albums of original material: 2006’s Highway to Hassake, 2009’s Dabke 2020, 2010’s Jazeera Nights, 2011’s Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts and 2011’s Leh Jani, 2013’s Wenu Wenu, 2015’s Bahdeni Nami and 2017’s To Syria, with Love — and all of those albums have not only brought the sounds and grooves of the Middle East to the West, his recorded output has helped to expand the Tell Tamer-born, Istanbul-based vocalist’s profile internationally.
Adding to a rapidly rising international profile, Souleyman has played sets at some of the world’s biggest festivals, including Paredes de Coura, a Caribou co-curated ATP Festival, ATP Nightmare Before Christmas, Bonnaroo, Roskilde Festival, Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul Festival, Pukkelpop Festival, Electric Picnic, Treefort Music Festival — and oddly enough, one of the strangest House of Vans bills I’ve ever seen, in which he opened for Future Islands. And before I forget, he’s also collaborated with Bjork, contributing vocals for three remixes, which appear on an Biophilia.
Last November, the Tell Tamer-born JOVM mainstay released his fourth album Shlon, through Mad Decent/Because Music. Deriving its title from the Arabic word “how” or more literally “which color,” the album featured double keyboard work from Hasan Alo, a fellow native of the Hasaka region of Northeastern Syria, who has recently been active in Dubai’s vibrant nightlife scene, a well as saz work from Azad Salih, a fellow Syrian, who currently resides in Mardin, Turkey. The album also finds the Tell Tamer-born, Istanbul-based vocalist continuing his longtime collaboration with Syrian-born, Turkish-based lyricst Moussa Al Mardood, who the wrote most of the album’s lyrics spontaneously during the recording sessions.
Shlon is vintage Souleyman: 6 songs which mesh the dabke and baladi music beloved by the Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, the Kurdish and Iraqis with thumping, synth-led techno, and as always, the material thematically is comprised of swooning tales of devotion, adoration and love. So far I’ve written about two album singles — the club banging “Layle,” a slick and seamless synthesis of classically inspired poetry and modern electronic music production and “Shi Tirdin” a swooning declaration of love, centered around a club thumping production. Interestingly, the album’s latest single, album title track “Shlon” continues an incredible run of swooning, dance floor bangers: this time Souleyman sings of a woman, who has intrigued him from afar, whose kiss would be worth 10 million other kisses over a slick production that meshes Kurdish and Arabic dabke and baladi styles with contemporary electronic dance music production featuring layers of shimmering synth arpeggios, tweeter and woofer rocking beats. Interestingly, the material may be the most ambitious and accessible of Souleyman’s career.
Directed and animated by Sound Visuals Club, the recently released video for “Shlon” depicts an animated Omar Souleyman set in which the acclaimed Syrian wedding singer turned global dance music star plays his pan Arabic take on dance music in front of a energetic crowd, who at one point dances hand-in-hand. It’s a delightful and playful video that should remind the viewer that on the dance floor, we’re all the same.