I was surprised when I received an email from a Palestinian friend asking if I would like to go to a concert by a Syrian singer, Omar Souleyman, who was performing at a popular club in central London in 2010. The email included a link to a YouTube clip of Souleyman singing at a local wedding in Syria. I was familiar with Souleyman’s genre of music and knew to correctly associate it with the northeast region of the country, known as the Jazira, but I had never heard of him before. A group of us eventually went to the concert. Preceded by a Japanese band, Souleyman took the stage wearing the traditional dress of thob and kuffiyya. Seemingly the only Arabs in the club, Souleyman’s concert was odd to us because the new setting of a London club contrasted with how his genre of music in the Middle East is associated with the remote Jazira region and its migrant laborer communities in Lebanese and Syrian cities. Since that experience, it became clear to me that Souleyman’s music is a rich case-study implicated in complex politics of representation and spectatorship in both Western and Arab contexts.
Omar Souleyman became locally famous in Syria in the late 1990s for his performances at weddings in the Jazira region. Around that time, a collaborator with American record label, Sublime Frequencies, ‘discovered’ Souleyman’s cassette tapes in Damascus and eventually met him to launch an album to a Western audience. Souleyman’s first album was produced in 2006 and he has since worked on three more with the record label, becoming one of its most successful artists. His latest album (2013), the first to be recorded in studio, was produced by Ribbon Music, part of the indie label, Domino Recording. Over the years, he has performed in prominent music venues and festivals in Europe, North America, and Australia, collaborating with the Icelandic superstar, Bjork, on an album in 2011. Recently, he performed at the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Norway in December 2013.
Informed by two interviews conducted with Souleyman in May 2012 and August 2013, this article focuses on the meanings his music has acquired throughout its global journey. I begin my analysis by contextualizing his music in Syria and examining the meanings ascribed to it there. I then discuss the industry of global music production, specifically Sublime Frequencies’ conception of the local and global spaces as expressed in its motto of “the aesthetics of extra-geography.” I elaborate on the ways that listeners use ‘global’ music to construct and affirm social and political positions based on imaginations of ‘the self’ and ‘the other.’ These tensions are reflected in the meanings projected on to Souleyman’s music; whether in the Jazira region, where it initially became popular, or Syria’s main cities, where the elite tends to consider his genre of music as the antithesis of ‘the modern’ and of high culture. Finally, in Western contexts, the record label that launched his career uses tropes of hybridity and brands him as authentic in multiple and contradictory ways. Music critics and fans comment on his music based on orientalist and problematic representations of Arabs and Muslims as dangerous and violent, evidenced by their description of Souleyman’s music as “jihadi techno,” and later as representing a tragic story of war. The meanings that are projected on the same music at different spaces control the geography of its flow as well as its entrapment.
Syrian Music: Between Localism and Elitism
Sublime Frequencies describes Souleyman’s music as an amalgam of classical Arabic mawwal-style vocalization that gives way to high-octane Syrian dabka, Iraqi chobi and a host of Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish styles. The music mixes this local tradition with Western instruments such as the keyboard. Souleyman calls it “popular heritage music” (in Arabic, turathi sha`bi). “I mix many kinds of music; Iraqi, Turkish, Kurdish, and the coast” of Syria, he says. His music blends different regional influences to produce the sound of the diverse Jazira region. Furthermore, his performances in wedding halls capture these regional and transnational influences and bring them to a local place. Actually, Souleyman and many other musicians of the region owe their fame to the circulation of cassette recordings of their performances at weddings, which are meant to be “presented to the married couple like an aural photo album of their blissful day”.
Shifting my focus from the northeast of Syria to its urban centers, the middle classes and the bourgeoisie become the main actors as self-appointed gatekeepers of Syrian cultural exports and guardians of ‘good’ music. Like many other contexts, the social meaning of music in Syria is typically discursively constructed around notions of authenticity, cosmopolitanism, and modernity, which can explain why Souleyman’s music is not appreciated by the urban elite. His unprecedented success in the West has been largely ignored by Syrian mainstream media, and until about 2013, on blogs and social media as well. One rare Syrian news article about him ran with the headline “The Syrian Jizrawi [from Jazira] singer Omar Souleyman receives substantive attention in many European countries.” The article says that “many have not heard of him in Syria” and then it proceeds to translate what European music blogs have written about him. Souleyman (2012) is aware of this elite stance, as he expresses bitterness over being ignored by Syrian and Arab media despite his unprecedented Western success: “I am happy with Western coverage (but) the Arab and Syrian media have failed to offer me anything . . . I would like to send a message to Arab media to give more attention to art and to every deserving person, particularly in popular music.”
In a later interview, Souleyman (2013) adds he has not been interviewed by any Syrian or Arab mainstream media outlet and that this Arab media blackout not only concerns him because “all music from Jazira is ignored.” Another issue that Souleyman brought up when asked about his regional fame is the lack of copyright laws, which make it particularly difficult for artists of popular and folk music to claim ownership over their music, and to receive the acknowledgement they deserve. He also emphasized that there is a lot of nepotism in Arab music production that ostracizes music from the Jazira. “We do not have support. We do not have a production company to support us like Rotana,” he adds in reference to the powerful Saudi record label and owner of a number of satellite music channels with near monopoly over the region’s music production.
The Global Dimension
At the "global" level, the record label, Sublime Frequencies, has branded Souleyman through giving contradictory accounts about the local meanings of his music. Release notes stress Souleyman’s locality and obscureness in Syria; while also exaggerating his success in the country and the wider Arab world. Both portrayals aim to establish his authenticity on multiple levels as simultaneously an example of obscure and subaltern music, and as representing Syrian and Arab aesthetic tastes. In its promotional commentaries, Sublime Frequencies stresses the subaltern background of his music by mentioning how it was “not previously deemed serious enough for export by the Syrians”. It also asserts that his musical journey went directly from its local context to the West by saying: “Omar’s success has transcended the wedding halls and cassette stalls of Syria and slipped into western consciousness” and dubs his music as “the essence of the Syrian northeast.” This effort to portray Souleyman as locally authentic is also reflected in the local names given to his albums such as Jazira Nights or Highway to Hassake. The local feel is also expressed through the Sublime Frequencies-produced video clips, which are uploaded on to the video-sharing website YouTube. They show him singing in local weddings, performance halls and public village celebrations.
At the same time, the record label exaggerates Souleyman’s success at the national Syrian and Arab levels— describing his music as “truly the sound of Syria” (2007) and saying that he enjoys “legendary status” (2011) in the country’s music scene. As ethnomusicologist Laith Ulaby (2012) has put it, “this is simply not true. Souleyman is virtually unknown to large swaths of the Syrian population” as he was “plucked from relative obscurity.” Sublime Frequencies also decontextualizes Souleyman’s music through promoting it as one example of local music from across the world. In this way, the official website of Sublime Frequencies promotes all the artists it collaborates with by using a similar rationale. In many of the concerts sponsored by the label, more than one artist performs in the same event. Souleyman could perform after an act from Japan, Thailand, or Niger. The presentation of the performances and artists follows the way that Sublime Frequencies describes itself on its website: “A collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers . . . SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is focused on an aesthetic of extra-geography.”
In this way, the label draws together vastly different examples of the “local” to make up the category of the “aesthetic of extra-geography,” which connotes that the music it produces is beyond place and therefore global. Thus, the amalgam of local sounds and their circulation and production through global distribution networks is a process that makes the local the ground of the global itself. Within this framework, local music and global music become synonymous. The original place of a certain style of music loses much of its relevance when it is packaged as “extra-geographic.” The practice of eclectically combining examples of local sounds and packaging them into one commodity of global music relies on the implicit assumption that their common attribute is their “strangeness and irreconcilable difference from any sort of (Western) musical mainstream”. In addition, the portrayal of the local as a “frontier” that is under exploration in order to acquire “obscure” sounds neglects to mention that the obscurity is only relative to Western ears. Thus, the celebratory representations of local authenticity only acquire value when branded as also global and, as a result of this process, the local is reduced to “a fetish which disguises the globally dispersed forces of production”. The distinction between local and global, and the different and the same, is almost irrelevant because they both fall within the context of commercial branding.
In Souleyman’s case, this celebration of difference takes the form of hybridity, as a rhetorical notion that focuses on cultural mixture. As Kraidy (2005) argues, hybridity uses a strategic rhetoric that portrays it as natural, desirable, and non-contentious as if it was achieved simply through the aesthetic effect. The rhetoric of hybridity also conceals the technicalities of music production. For example, the celebration of the musical cooperation between Souleyman and Bjork as an example of hybridity obscures the fact that Souleyman had never met Bjork. Their music was mixed in studio and Souleyman had no say in the process of production and, as he was keen to tell me, he did not have much input in determining the profit he would make of the album sales. At a more fundamental level, the celebratory tone of hybridity glosses over the simple fact that Souleyman does not speak any English and, when in the United States or Europe, is completely dependent on his producers and agents for day-to-day activities, organization of tours and concerts, and importantly, for the terms of his business contracts. In addition, as a Syrian citizen, he goes through the cumbersome process of acquiring visas to Western countries—not always successfully.
These contentious dimensions of the politics of globalization and music production become more explicit in the textual analysis of music reviews, which are often orientalist or reflective of post-9/11war against terror discourses. In many reviews of Souleyman’s concerts, it is stated that his music “has been described as jihadi techno.” The source of the description is ambiguous but “jihadi techno” has been a common trope of representation of Souleyman’s music with its reference to terrorism and violence perpetrated by Muslims. When I told Souleyman how his music is sometimes described, he (2013) was shocked and told me “all my songs are about love. I don’t sing anything political, let alone about jihad!”
There is also no shortage of orientalist metaphors in the music reviews. In one review, Razan Sa’id, the keyboard player, was described as “more snake charmer than keyboard player, drawing out endlessly twisting and wriggling synth lines that strike out from the melody with a life of their own”. One music reviewer sought to explain why Syrians listen to Souleyman’s music in weddings by claiming that “in a culture where virginity is still a really big deal, this sort of hyper drive craziness is totally fitting for an occasion that marks the social acceptableness for a couple to finally do it”. Another critic explains the music by arguing that in Arab countries, it is difficult to “face the hot burning sun of many desert areas, where not much protects you from immediate heat” and that much of Arab music is “like presentations of the heat”. Others chose food as their go-to orientalist metaphor. “Wenu Wenu [Souleyman’s new album] still feels very alien to me, but the way midnight “shawarma” feels alien. It’s delicious and filling and even though I have no idea where they got that meat, I’m gonna put it in my body,” stated one reviewer.
With the Syrian uprising and the ensuing civil war, the reviews and coverage about Omar Souleyman implicated him in the Syrian tragedy and its politics. Souleyman became “a wedding singer from drought-riddled, war-torn Syria.” His religious and ethnic identity as a “Sunni Arab” became worth-mentioning in music reviews. His music seemed to become impossible to hear without the echoes of the Syrian war. As for lyrics, his new album was described as a “tribute to Souleyman’s beloved and deeply troubled homeland”. In fact, the lyrics are typical of Souleyman’s musical genre and focus on themes of love and longing, for example the words “How are you doing my treasure? You’re always on my mind.” Despite that, the critic insisted that “it’s not a stretch to imagine that the woman” invoked is Syria, “and his words are a reflection on how the country has changed over two devastating years of civil war”. When asked about the link of his music to war, the interviewer said Souleyman “insists that the song has nothing to do with Syria. “It’s just about love, he says.”” The critic then interprets the denial as an indication that “the topic of war makes Souleyman a bit agitated”. Another reviewer wrote “coming from a land where deep sectarian conflict will resonate for generations, if not centuries, Souleyman sounds like the most self-possessed and most heartbroken man in the world” .
This discourse about Souleyman and the Arab world that alludes to danger and violence or that portrays him as a parody, or to use Said’s words “a living tableau of queerness” have their roots in Orientalism.
Souleyman’s case exemplifies how discursive binaries such as the rural and urban, the modern and traditional, high and low culture, the Western and the Arab, and the authentic and inauthentic, structure the social world and, in this case, determine the transnational flow of music. Along the intersections of these binaries, certain meanings determine how music is understood by publics in different spaces, and therefore control the geography of its flow and entrapment. Accordingly, music acts as a sound marker of locality, modernity, authenticity, and cosmopolitanism, all of which signal distinctions between insiders and outsiders.
The story of Omar Souleyman is a unique one— staged during the last two decades in the wedding halls of northeast Syria and also in the clubs and festivals of Amsterdam and Brooklyn. It is a narrative that reveals certain meanings of the local and global. For his part, Souleyman is content with his Western fame and points out that he has been treated with respect while abroad. “I am very proud that I am a popular Syrian singer who performs for foreigners and that I have an audience in New York,” he says. He (2013) adds that he had “never expected” his Western fame and remembers that initially he treated Sublime Frequencies’ plan of the global launch of his album as a joke because of his skeptic disbelief. Perhaps he knows that had he not been ‘discovered’ by the US label, his music would have been entrapped in the Jazira region without opportunity to cut through the elite regional music production industry. With Souleyman’s fame in the West, however, jizrawi music—for the first time—is gaining increasing recognition amongst party-goers in places such as the Lebanese capital Beirut.
Now that the situation in Syria has taken a dramatic and violent political shift with the uprising that began in 2011, there will be parallel shifts in cultural roles and expressions from the various sectors of society, divided along sectarian, ethnic, and class lines. Needless to say, in post-2011 Syria, there is already a new formulation of what it means to be modern–a conceptualization always in the making and never fixed. The story of Souleyman remains an important narrative of how a local artist and his music have navigated multiple hegemonic structures. It reveals the irony and cynicism of how the imagination and performance of ‘the modern’ is understood in different spaces—how the Westernizing and modernizing sectors of Syrian society ignored Souleyman in their quest for cool cosmopolitan modernness, while young Europeans and American hipsters danced and raved to his music in their pursuit of modern cultural globalization.
 D. Novak, "The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media," Public Culture 23 3 65 (2011), 603-634.
 V. Erlmann, "The Aesthetics of the Global Imagination: Reflections on World Music in the 1990s." Public Culture 8(3) (1996), 467-487.
 M. M. Kraidy, Hybridity: The Cultural Logic Of Globalization (1st ed.) (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011).
 E. W. Said, Orientalism (1st ed.) (New York, NY: Vintage, 1997).