Exiled Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman becomes a big hit with hip Western music fans
Souleyman says 'there is really no more music in Syria'
A Syrian wedding party singer, who has become the hottest name to drop in Western electronic circles after winning praise from Damon Albarn and Björk, fears that he will never be allowed to perform again in his war-torn home country after being forced into exile.
Wearing his trademark red-checkered keffiyeh and dark sunglasses, folk singer Omar Souleyman is Syria's most popular wedding party act, performing his propulsive brand of "dabke", a popular style across the Middle East.
His live act was captured on 500 tapes, which he presents exclusively to the bride and groom after each celebration. Souleyman, 57, has now been embraced by clubbers after recording his first studio album for a Western audience, produced by the UK electronic artist Kieran Hebden, known as Four Tet.
The album, Wenu Wenu, released by the record label which discovered Arctic Monkeys, is creeping up the UK chart, and follows a collaboration with Damon Albarn's Gorillaz.
Souleyman is currently touring Europe after he and his family were forced to leave their hometown, Ras al-Ayn, following battles between Kurdish separatists, the Syrian army and rebel forces.
"There is really no more music in Syria," Souleyman told The Independent ahead of a concert in Lisbon. "The darkness of war has taken over. I do not perform in Syria any longer and for the time being I will not do so. It is not the right time for that."
Souleyman has relocated to Turkey after dodging machine-gun fire and bombs on a journey from Beirut via his home country. A weddings singer-for-hire since 1994, Souleyman is startled by his sudden embrace by a hip, Western audience.
"I am especially proud and happy about the new album. It is the best sound I have ever had and I'm so grateful to my producer Kieran," he said. "It has always been a dream to me to have something like this and now it is real."
Souleyman will visit London and Glasgow next month for a pair of hotly-anticipated shows. "There will be parties to remember," promises the singer, who accepts that his new fans may not understand the romantic Arabic narratives of his lyrics.
Although his latest release incorporates cutting-edge dancefloor sounds, he is keen for his new Western audience to understand the celebratory roots of "dabke", which thrived before the current conflict.
Souleyman said: "Dabke is a dance that used to be take place outdoors in villages. Then it became the indoor dance of celebrations like weddings and all else that we celebrate in my region. There are many different kinds of dabke - every region and every Arab people have their own way of dancing the dabke and the music that goes with it."
Souleyman was first brought to the attention of a Western audience when Californian musician Mark Gergis heard one of his tapes blaring from a market stall on a trip to Damascus and compiled the best tracks on a US release. Wenu Wenu is released in the UK by a subsidiary of Domino, the independent label behind Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand.
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