On the first weekend of August, Syrian pop artist Omar Souleyman had been booked to play Stockholm Music and Arts Festival, but was unable to fulfil his obligations because the Swedish government denied him a visa. It was a sharp reminder that, despite Souleyman’s recent signing to Ribbon Music and collaboration with Four Tet on his forthcoming album Wenu Wenu, the international prejudice against Syrian nationals is no joke.
A week later, Souleyman was granted access to the country following a personal appeal to the Swedish Embassy in Istanbul, and delivered a thrilling fusion pop set to the ready-to-rave crowd at Way Out West, the festival in the country’s music capital of Gothenburg. The world’s foremost dabke star was understandably treading carefully when we spoke to him over tea before the show, preferring not to focus on politics, but music as an international force for optimism and community.
Dazed Digital: After all the trouble getting into Sweden, how does it feel to actually be here?
Omar Souleyman: I am pleased to be here, very thrilled. Especially because I love the Swedish crowd, I’ve been here a couple of times. I don't know why I wasn't allowed in initially – I’m not politically active. I’ve got nothing to do with politics in particular. I’m a musician, an artist and I enjoy performing.
DD: Do you think you were made a scapegoat?
Omar Souleyman: I can’t speculate because I don’t know the real reason why I wasn’t let in the country in the first place. They haven’t given me any explanation.
DD: You recorded your new album Wenu Wenu with Four Tet in Brookyln. How did that process begin?
Omar Souleyman: As an artist you must always keep up to date, and my manager recommended that I collaborate with Kieran (Hebden, aka Four Tet). He is a sound technician, and it was about refining the sound for a Western audience – he didn't change my music and make it into something else. Arabic music has its own style and I’ve got control over it.
DD: Do you like Brookyn?
Omar Souleyman: I love coming to New York, and I'm very fond of Brooklyn. When I visit the city that's my home. But when I visit, it's always for work, so I don’t have that much time to go around the city. In the two or three hours after I finish working I like to be solitary – either working on music or taking a nap. I don't have the time to be a tourist.
My main inspiration, ultimately, is to make people happy. Everyone likes my music where I come from! It's more about community – romance and bonds in general
DD: At the moment what’s your favourite Western music, and Middle Eastern music?
Omar Souleyman: When it comes to Western music, I like songs and genres which have slow beats, easy-listening, that brings calm to me. Like car music; When I'm driving I don't like to listen to hard beats. In the Middle East, I like to listen to Oum Kalthoum, who is a very famous Egyptian singer. Ultimately, she is the best and has really inspired Arab community spirit during the years of colonisation. She's the mother of classical Arabic music.
DD: A lot of your songs are about love, and you’ve performed a lot at marriage ceremonies. Is your main inspiration from couples and romance?
Omar Souleyman: My main inspiration, ultimately, is to make people happy. When it comes to love, of course inspiration is marriage, but I like to please everyone when it comes to a party. That’s why my music is feel-good and has dance beats. Everyone likes my music where I come from! It's more about community – romance and bonds in general.
DD: In a divided world, do you make your music to bridge the things that divide us?
Omar Souleyman: My biggest goal is to bring happiness and community to people. I want to make music part of their life so that they can feel peace. It's very optimistic. Everyone from 6-year-old children to adults listen to my music.