A few years ago, it seemed like electronic music had - like Hip Hop before it, ironically enough, given a ‘voice’ to fractions of society who previously had no access to mass media. With internet penetration on the rise, the Middle East saw the birth of new genres. Our generation has witnessed the birth of a genre: Electo-Shaabi, whether we like it or not.
Egypt wasn't the only place witnessing what's been referred to as the democratisation of music, where the power was no longer in the hands of the taste-makers. The region was no longer shackled by monotony and Rotana, free to explore, share, and click ‘like’. Syrian musician Omar Souleyman, a wedding singer since 1994 with countless bootlegs circulating in kiosks across the Levant – and subsequently online, had finally been picked up by some international DJs who presumably were drawn to the hard percussive sound. It was a new techno that was deeply rooted in Arab tradition.
Souleyman’s fast forward dabke sound eventually made it onto Björk’s radar in 2009, who, in turn, turned the world's attention to him through one of her periodic musical recommendations in an NPR interview. The world embraced him and so had Björk herself, having asked him to collaborate on her Biophila Remix Series in 2011.
Souleyman had become one of those anomalies who are strangely more known, respected, and sought-after abroad than in their own countries and regions. To Arab ears, it was nothing more than cheap, Bedouin-style dabke - only sped up to a more bouncy tune. And a voice unimpressive for the most part. The same dismissive resolve many had towards Egyptian electro-shaabi.
There is something immensely satisfying about watching festival goers frantically jump around and dance to this ‘extreme’ Arab music. It's not quite the genre invention, but Souleyman had concocted an addictive mix: a catchy chorus and techno tempo. Add some exoticism to the pot, and we have a winner.
Omar Souleyman has played more reputable festivals than any other Arab artist ever; Bonnaroo, Roskilde, Pukkelpop, Sonar, Electric Picnic, Latitude, Bestival, Melt!, Pitchfork, FYF, Primavera, Iceland Airwaves, ATP, Glastonbury, and The Noble Peace Prize Concert, to name just a few. Since signing on to UK label Ribbon Music in 2013, Souleyman has released two albums to even wider audiences who probably don't have the faintest idea what he's saying. His latest album, out June 2nd on Mad Decent Records, bears a pink graphic of his face that's always half hidden behind Gaddafi-esque sunnies. Titled To Syria, With Love, it feels like an ode to his homeland, as he revels in her beauty.
Nothing to marvel at, and certainly not a musical feat; the usual Souleyman percussive madhouse of dance. If anything, it's even a softer sound. What's important here, though, is that it is Arab. And so is he. Unmistakably so. And it's all over the world, making us dance.
Omar Souleyman is playing a gig in Jordan for the Redbull Music Academy on July 7.