This Is Your Brain on Omar

Interview with Mark Gergis
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I first learned about Omar Souleyman through friends of Mark Gergis. Once they told me about “Leh Jani”, the YouTube video dance hit from the album Highway, I became obsessed, and I’m not the only one. The video has gotten more than half a million hits. The song barrels into a call-and-response between an overdriven, high-pitched keyboard line and Souleyman’s reedy voice and trills. It’s berserk and giddy, as though it will spin out of control. In the video montage, Souleyman, cool in dark sunglasses, a leather jacket, and a red-and-white checked keffiyeh, is showered with money by female dabke dancers. My brain on Omar: I’ve played the video repeatedly, like a rat on crack. One time I even let my son’s oatmeal burn. I’ll neglect my parenting duties to hear Omar’s voice.

Ever gotten obsessed about a song? I mean really obsessed — beyond writing lyrics on your body with a Sharpie or stalking the singer on Facebook? Well, reconsider your definition. In This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin explains the effect of charismatic singers. If the voice has a magnetic, empathetic quality, it will speak openly, transparently, as if the listener has a mainline into the singer’s emotional state. It doesn’t matter if the singer has had professional training; the voice’s expressiveness has an elusive quality, and it’s addictive to the listener. Every time we hear the song again, our neurons try to reboot the same emotions evoked the first time we heard it. Our dopamine levels work on overdrive. This hormonal effect drives rare, adventurous people – like Mark Gergis, for example – to travel thousands of miles to befriend the singer – Omar Souleyman in this case – behind the song.

Mark Gergis is an Oakland, CA-based musician who performs as Porest, and is also a filmmaker, DJ, and musical entrepreneur (tour manager/record producer/contributor to the indie label Sublime Frequencies). Gergis travels frequently to Southeast Asia and the Middle East in pursuit of music beyond what’s packaged neatly for Starbucks customers. In 1997, during a visit to Damascus, he heard one man’s voice stand out from others’ blaring from the speakers of street stalls: Omar Souleyman’s. Gergis brought back many of the man’s cassettes, ranging from brash, polyrhythmic dabke music to lyrical folk songs, to share with his friends; he returned to Syria in 2000, collecting more tapes. Six years later, Gergis tracked down Omar with basic sleuthing persistence – asking someone at a Kurdish cassette store for the phone number of someone who knew someone who knew Omar. Souleyman, by then a star in Syria, agreed to meet Gergis and his traveling companion in Hassake, Omar’s hometown, near the Iraqi border. To our collective good fortune, Souleyman also agreed to have Sublime Frequencies release a compilation of tracks, Highway to Hassake.

Since Sublime Frequencies began in 2003, Gergis has contributed many releases compiled of music from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including Coubi Choubi! Folk & Pop Songs from Iraq and Shadow Music from Thailand. With each release come liner notes explaining the history of the music and the musicians, guiding us beyond a superficial knowledge of a region or musical culture. It’s all part of an act of diplomacy more persuasive than most, because music affects the primitive and advanced parts of our brain. Mark Gergis wants Omar and his music to broaden our understanding of a part of the world often stereotyped in the media by fear mongers.

Last spring, Gergis helped organize a UK and Europe tour for Souleyman and another Sublime Frequencies band, Group Doueh from the western Sahara; he is now finishing another Souleyman release for that place of birth and finalizing plans for a three-month Souleyman tour of Europe, the States and Canada, which is set to begin in May 2010. (Details at www.sublimefrequencies.com.) EM spoke with Mark Gergis about Omar Souleyman’s music and his more recent experience working with the musician himself.

EM: When you culled songs from tapes to put on Highway to Hassake, you began with what’s become his most famous song, “Leh Jani.” What were your thoughts when you were selecting the other songs?

I’d spent about eight years listening to the Souleyman cassettes I’d brought back from trips to Syria. I would sometimes play it for friends, to mixed reaction. I mulled attempts at compiling something cohesive, and when a friend asked me for an Omar comp, I took it as a cue to start attempting the process. There was just so much to draw from and the mass of it was dizzying. The fidelity varied wildly and some tapes were unmarked and pitched or edited poorly. Nevertheless, I came up with two discs of material and distributed this to friends.

Later, Sublime Frequencies and I discussed a retrospective album and then came the 2006 trip to Syria to discuss it with Omar himself. “Leh Jani” is part of a sprawling 50-minute cassette. It’s a killer opener to the first album and it became the gateway cut for many an Omar fan. I think this surprised Omar and his group when they heard about it, because it’s something that they hadn’t thought much about and a song that they hadn’t played in years.

Basically, I compiled the Omar album like I do any collection, be it my own music or whatever. Sequencing is everything. Not thinking about sequencing is ridiculous, because whatever choices are made dictate how it will affect the listener. It is a form of storytelling, and presentation always matters if you desire an impacting result.

EM: What was it about Omar’s songs that made you seek him out, as opposed to other singers?

I’ve been asked that question by Syrians as well. They are sometimes confused by my choice, as there are many Syrian dabke singers producing music and playing weddings and concerts. Many of these singers are slicksters with highly glossed images and a lot of pomp and redundancy. After collecting and listening to hundreds of them, I deduced that while there are similar acts in the country, none really matches the distinct character of the Omar sound. His longtime collaboration with Rizan Sa’id, the Kurdish keyboard player, has yielded some of the rawest and most urgent-sounding examples of new wave dabke I’ve heard, and it definitely stands apart from others, to me. Omar’s voice is unique as well, whether he’s singing or MC-ing, there’s a rugged beauty to it that is genuine and very likeable.

EM: The term genius is often used, and you apply it to Omar. Do you think he’s actually a genius, or do you use the term more as one of deep affection and admiration?

Both, really. Omar is a visionary. His approach to his craft is a confident one. He said it himself in Bristol, UK, when asked whether he was nervous to bring his music to a Western crowd: “I’m confident, and when a singer is confident he can accomplish anything.” He could work a crowd of 5,000 partying Europeans with the same charm and charisma he could a ring of Syrian line-dancers back home. It’s genius at its truest, not because someone strategized it, but more the striking result of something genuine. After getting to know Omar quite well, I have to say I have a lot of respect for his genuineness, vision and humor. He’s very close to being a super hero.

EM: Souleyman’s look is very distinctive, as befits a singer/frontman. Has he been influenced by anyone in particular?

Omar has professed to not have icons. He’s really his own thing. The look he possesses is commonplace in some circles. Minus the perpetual sunglass wear, men donning jalabas and keffiyehs can be seen throughout Syria and the Arab world. Omar was in a terrible motor accident as a boy and the sunglasses help keep the focus away from this fact. The image he has cultivated is a distinguished and striking one to be sure.

His first reaction to the often-asked Western question, “Who are your influences?” is always something like, “I have no influences. People imitate me.”

EM: Does Omar work as a full-time, professional musician in Syria? How does his family feel about his profession?

Omar is a full-time singer in Syria. These days, it’s going well for him and it’s been a steady rise since the early 2000s. He is in high demand at weddings and parties and now he is getting to be known within Syria as someone with international credibility, which impacts his popularity at home, to a degree. He is married and has a large family and I’m sure they’re thankful for Omar’s successes. The living in rural northeastern Syria has never been easy and anything above the average there is [enviable].

EM: When I first read the CD title Highway to Hassake, I thought it referred, as an in-joke, to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Has he heard that?

Ha ha… no… Omar hasn’t heard much in the way of Western music. It’s incidental to him. Omar and his group have never heard of Elvis or the Beatles, yet they know Michael Jackson, George Michael and Celine Dion. Context and the dissemination of Western cultural detritus in Syria are something you have to be there to better understand.

EM: Is Omar open to your personal, wide range of musical interests? What about the rest of the band?

On the 2009 tour, we had the chance to play some of our own music (Sun City Girls, Porest, etc.) to Omar and his group, and it was usually just a confusing laugh for them. They would react to some of the sounds we played for them in the tour buses, like Thai Molam, which went over well, or someone’s experimental CD, which reminded the group of annoying insects.

EM: You gave a lengthy interview in the online journal Fecal Face. In it, you talked about your travels to Hassake in search of Omar, and being trailed by the Syrian secret police. How did you feel about that? You’ve probably traveled enough to be savvy, but sometimes that isn’t enough, especially considering the language barrier.

It’s a paranoid country and an even more paranoid region. We understood why it was happening. Not many tourists visit the region, and I can see why we would be of interest. I respect Syria for keeping an eye out for those who would like to see the country dismantled. Syria is surely crawling with foreign spies and agents who are perpetually trying to undermine its sovereignty, so as much as it was confusing and annoying, we couldn’t get too angry. I’m glad we were allowed to conduct business there, and the Syrian officials were polite and hospitable.

EM: So given those circumstances, would you say just the fact of bringing Omar to the States is a political statement?

Absolutely. The same goes for any of our Arab-related releases. They are political statements by default in that we are bringing positive attention to Arab culture, be it Islamic or otherwise. Being able to pull that off in any way that matters in our current environment is no small feat. One of the biggest victories of the tour for us was seeing Omar Souleyman, a man with an image that is often connected to something criminal or negative in the mind of Westerner, up on stage being celebrated as a hero and something positive. That says a lot.

EM: How was the UK/European tour of 2009? From what I glimpsed through posted videos, it looked fantastic.

The tour was an incredible opportunity for Omar and his group, who had never been to the West before. I think it’s a real privilege for Western audiences to experience that form of Syrian dabke music. Omar was extremely well received and the tour secured him the title of international star. We were all pleased about the whole deal and it went without any real hitches. Qu Junktions in the UK helped put the whole tour together, and it was they who secured us the grant from the UK arts council [Arts Council England]. They contacted us as fans of Souleyman and the label and asked if we thought it was possible, all based on the Sublime Frequencies CD release and the promotional video for “Leh Jani” I’d put up on YouTube a year previous. The tour was very well promoted once word got out. It was a night not to be missed. The entire tour featured Group Doueh (from the Western Sahara), Omar and his group, as well as Sublime Frequencies film screenings and DJ sets.

EM: I’ve seen clips on YouTube from the UK/European tour, and you mentioned you might produce a documentary in the future.  Is Omar interested in collaborating in that medium, or would you do that mostly on your own?

Omar lent several hours to us in the form of candid discussions on video and the rest is up to us. Omar trusts our presentation of his work in the West and realizes it would take a hundred compilations to aptly document his career.

EM: The video for “Leh Jani” has some narrative bits, but it’s primarily a collage. What do you hope to do with original footage, then?

With the footage we’ve shot in Syria and on the tour last year, and potentially this year, we plan to assemble a film that captures the essence of the tour, the successes, the frustrations and the work that went into making it happen, and the excitement of seeing it all come to life for all parties involved.

EM: The Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed is famous in certain musical circles through the Ethiopiques’ releases. When he and his band played at an Ethiopian restaurant in Portland recently, the vibe/atmosphere was reportedly like the welcoming of an Ethiopian superstar. Everyone knew the words and danced until 3 AM or later. Is there a large Syrian community in the States where Omar is going to play? Is that important to Omar, or is he trying to reach a wider audience?

There are sizeable Arab communities throughout the US, particularly in Detroit, where we know Omar would be appreciated if he were to do a banquet or wedding party. What we have lined up, though, is going through a different circuit, which we have to rely on in order to make the tour happen in North America. We won’t have the time to divert from what is scheduled or do much outside the program, but it’s a program we’re still working on. It’s the first time that a Syrian dabke singer will be brought to a Western audience in this way.

You can bet that there are incredible singers and musicians in a similar league as Omar who pay visits to their respective communities and play concerts most of us never hear about, because it’s not promoted in a language we can read or in places or publications we may frequent. Often times, there’s not even a thought that a Western audience would be interested enough to attend. Some folks in Syria thought we must have taken Omar on an Arabic restaurant tour in Europe and were surprised to hear otherwise.

EM: How are the shows booked on the upcoming US/Canada tour different from those on the most recent one?

In Europe, the grant we received helped us do the club- and medium-capacity shows
we felt would be the best way to experience the groups Doueh and Omar intimately. In some cases we had bills that were seated and more controlled, and this confused everybody. Because the music is so danceable, people would squirm or try to dance in the aisles, and a lot of energy was zapped as a result. Omar spent a lot of time trying to get people to come up and dance and the audience wasn’t sure if that’s what was correct. Our hope is that we are able to bring Omar into as many apt club environments as possible in the US and Canada, though we realize that this may not be the case. Either way, it’s unmissable.

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For more on Omar, visit Sublime Frequencies: http://www.sublimefrequencies.com/

All Photo Credits: Mark Gergis

Published on 1 May 2010 |