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27 f G

ergis’s discovery wasn’t just a haphazard bolt from the blue. It was the resolution of a quest. “For years I’d been searching for rawer and more powerful

Arabic music than that in my dad’s record collection. I went through the whole belly dance thing and then tried to get into rai. They were promoting rai as being very raw and kind of punk, but although I liked it, it wasn’t exactly what I was hop- ing for. But that Jazeera sound was wild. It just seemed like a punk version of the other dabke that I was hearing.”

Gergis made a second trip to Syria in 2000, with his brother Eric, and this time he left the tourist trail and travelled by bus to Al Hassakeh, one of the main towns in the Jazeera and main home of Omar Souleyman. “It’s so far, that Damascus considers it almost Iraq. It’s just another world. There’s that older village mentality there. The accent that Omar speaks is very close to the Iraqi accent my family have. Talking to Omar is sort of like speaking to my Iraqi grandfather.”

Al Hassakeh is a concrete work-a-day town. Its colour comes from the variety of its inhabitants: Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Iraqis, Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Chaldeans, Yazidi, Armenians, Alaouis. The streets and markets are thronged by old women with facial tattoos, Christian Assyrians wearing ridiculously over-sized crosses round their necks, Arab men in their traditional kef- fiyas and jellabiyas, women with and with- out headscarves and traditional tribal threads of every kind. The area reminds you of Syria and the Levant’s true mongrel character, a rich and fecund mix that racial and religious pedants and purists of all kinds would dearly love to unravel.

I ask Omar if all these different ethnic- ities manage to coexist peacefully back home. “I have all sorts of friends, Chris- tians and Kurds,” he answers. “My two band members, Rizan and Ali are Kurds. I am an Arab. On the last tour we had a poet with us, and he was Christian.”

There has been inter-ethnic conflict in the Jazeera, most notably in March 2004 when a Kurdish ‘intifada’ broke out after a football match in the city of Al-Qamishli. Apparently the Kurds in the stands were chanting the praises of Talabani, Barzani and George Bush Jr and the Arabs coun- tered with pro-Saddam hollers. It all became nasty. Tanks rolled in. Syrian security forces opened fire on Kurds during the annual cel- ebrations of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, in Al Raqqah as recently as this year.

But that’s the big picture. I have no problem believing that street-level ethnic harmony prevails in and around Al Has- sakeh. Omar himself was born in an Arab family in the Jazeera village of Tell Amir and grew up listening to Iraqi pop from the 1950s onwards, especially the pop dabke and choubi of the ‘70s and ‘80s. A name he cites readily in our interview is that of the singer and rabab (traditional violin) player Saad Harbawi. A serious motorbike accident in his early teens dam- aged his eyes, which is why he’s rarely seen without his shades. In his late teens, Omar became a labourer. “What kind of labour- ing?” I asked. “Anything,” he answered. Music was just a hobby until the mid 1990s, when Omar was in his late 20s. His roughneck holler earned him a local repu- tation as a wedding-performer and he started singing professionally. His family disapproved but that’s par for the course in the Middle East.

At around this time Souleyman start- ed working with keyboardist Rizan Sa’id and saz player Ali Shaker, both of whom still accompany him. Rizan is a whizz-kid on the Korg and a reputable record pro- ducer, credited with inventing the new, edgier, harder form of dabke that emerged from the Jazeera in the mid 1990s. He has produced hits for dabke and Syrian pop megastars like George Wassouf and Shari Al Fawaz and worked for Syrian TV. Munching Kettle crisps from a large black bag, Rizan tells me all about his home studio in Al Hassakeh where he pro- duces much of Omar Souleyman’s output, and that of many other local stars whose names he reels off with his quick, intelli- gent and self-confident manner. I can’t remember any of them. On stage, Rizan twiddles knobs, punches programmes, flicks out melodies like a virtuoso.

Early promo literature in the west made great play of the fact that Souleyman has released over 500 cassettes in Syria… but this of course is just floating hyperbole. 80% of those releases are recordings made at weddings and presented to the married couple like a kind of aural photo album of their blissful day. Copies are copied and recopied and sold at local kiosks. The turnover is relentless. Every time Gergis went back to Syria he found that his favourite Souleyman tunes were already dépassé. “He’s a little surprised that people like his old music,” Gergis tells me. “But then again, ‘old’ is last year.”

When Gergis finally tracked Omar Souleyman down in 2006 and secured an agreement to release a compilation of his music on the Sublime Frequencies label, Souleyman was already a rising star in the Arab world, thanks to the success of his 2005 hit Khataba (The Proposal) and its lus- ciously sensual video clip on YouTube. He was being booked for residencies in Dama- scene nightclubs, and for weddings and parties in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Gergis proposed a new adventure in Europe and North America, and Souleyman agreed. Sublime Frequencies have released three CDs to date: Highway To Hassake (2006), Dabke 2020 (2009) and Jazeera Nights (2010). As Souleyman started to bewitch the west, word of his success seeped back to Syria through the digital ether. The reac- tion in some quarters was pure horror.

The following comes from a Syrian music promoter and journalist friend of mine: “I’m a great defender of chaabi or popular music. However, Omar is a very bad singer. And it’s a real shame that he got lucky. This isn’t a social judgement; this is an artistic opin- ion, especially when Al Jazeera is full of amazing popular singers, like Ibrahim Keivo for example. In terms of chaabi music (like really taxi music), I am a fan of Wafik Habib from the coast. And the biggest star of the country is, of course, Ali Al Dik. Omar’s music is offending to the local musicians

especially when it is presented in interna- tional festivals as Syrian music. No one knows him here, apart from maybe some truck drivers from the north. It is just hor- rible music, with stupid lyrics. But I under- stand that western audiences might find it ‘cool’ because it is kitsch, and because of his funny look. I don’t think the people of Sublime Frequencies would be inter- ested in these great singers (Ibrahim Keivo and Wafik Habib). It is more com- mercial to present a bad and kitsch singer as the Syrian sound!!”

I read this passage to Mark Gergis and he returns fire as follows: “Well, yeah, once again… confirmed. The lines between high art and pop culture are drawn pretty deeply in the Arab world. Omar has become the most successful export in the history of Syrian music, as it’s perceived in the rest of the world. There’s never been a dabke artist or a Syrian, much less anyone from the Jazeera, that’s ever made it out and toured like this in the west. People are either very entertained or angry or puzzled by it. But we’re really happy and of course he’s really happy.” Gergis goes on to elaborate a theory that Syria, post the death of old man Hafez Al Assad and through the current reign of his son Bashir, is going through a kind of pere- stroika period, an opening up both inter- nally and externally and that consequently the intelligentsia of the country are partic- ularly touchy about Syria’s image abroad and concerned that the right music should be allowed to represent the country on the international stage. Omar is obviously far from being the cultural ambassador they had in mind.

Omar himself gives the impression of not giving a pair of rodents about the con- troversies raging around him. “There are very few people who get away from their heritage with that snobbish attitude,” he says. “Everyone can have their opinion, but if they think that, they’re wrong. For example, in our country, the soap operas are very popular and very folky.” Appar- ently, a soap called Bab El Hara (The Neighbourhood Gate) is the big hit of the moment back home. It’s set in a bygone time of sure and solid values, when men were men and women were women. Peo- ple love it and even ignored a live TV speech by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah and a kind of political deity in Syria, to watch the soap en masse during a recent Ramadan broadcast.

Photo: Mark Gergis

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