Normally a last minute cancellation for a music festival won’t warrant much more than some local headlines and a couple post-festival inquiries about “what could have been”, but the removal of Omar Souleyman from the Stockholm Music & Arts roster set the entire Swedish, European and North American fleet of music media aflame in an instant. The reason was as simple as it was misguided: the Swedish consulate in Turkey decided to refuse the world-renowned entry and a visa to Sweden based on his Syrian nationality, and out of fear of him and his band seeking asylum here. A week later the consulate has been caught with their between their legs after being challenged by Luger to reconsider, and with the world watching the debacle Omar Souleyman was finally granted permission to fly to Gothenburg and perform at Way Out West. We stole a couple of minutes of his time before his performance on the Linné Stage.
Mr. Souleyman, would you mind telling us, in your own words, who you are and what you do?
Who is Omar Souleyman? Well, Omar Souleyman is an ordinary human being. There is nothing more to it than that, really. He is an artist, plain and simple, who does what he enjoys doing.
Where and when, and how, did you notice that you can sing the way you do, in a way that touches people in a certain, special way?
I noticed it at first when i was 7, the fact that I could sing. Earlier on in my youth is was not much more but a simple farmer from Ra’s al-‘Ayn with a poor upbringing. I had my proper breakthrough, so to speak, late on, as late as 1994, so it took me a while to establish a steady foundation to work upon.
When did this cultural thing that is pretty established in countries like Syria and Iraq and Turkey, of performing at weddings for couples and giving them the performance and the actual recordings as a gift, become something more? When did it turn into an actual career as a performer and singer and a recording artist outside of wedding entertainment?
It has really been a gradual transformation, if you will. I have always focused on working on my music and making it accessible for as many people as humanly possible, and the thing that is perhaps special about me is maybe the fact that so many different kinds of people are moved by and fans of what I do, they feel it speaks to them, no matter what creed or belief these people subscribe to. The region that I call him is one of those places, where so many different people live together, so I’ve always been inclined to appeal to them all rather than just some of them. Of course all of this started very small, my first show abroad was in Jordan, then we moved around the geographical vicinity and finally had our first show in Europe in 2006. So I would say that I built upon my “fame” slowly, gradually, without hurrying myself, the music or the process. I try to read the audience and give them what they want, which has perhaps made what I do a bit more unique.
With this in mind, how did it feel to be denied the chance at first to do what he loves, to share his joy and his culture to the people of Sweden, only to be denied entry for the first time in his life? How did that feel, not so much for you as a musician but as a person?
It made me surprised at first, and then more worried. This is the first time ever, as you pointed out, that I’ve been denied entry to anywhere in Europe. I’ve been here many times, I’ve been to the Netherlands and to Sweden too many times, and it worried and affected me because it so obviously and easily can affect the future of my career. Whenever I get a new visa to travel to another country via a different consulate this could come up and damage my chances of traveling and performing; they might see that I’ve been denied, they might ask me why I was denied, and could decide to deny me too. So, this worried me, and it concerned me, and I’m relieved it was all resolved so swiftly.
Do you feel at home at festivals like this, in Europe and in “the Western World”, as an artist that plays like you play?
It’s obviously different there compared to here, this compared to say…weddings in Syria where they give you around 4-5 hours to perform, accompanied by a dance-band which stretches the time a bit and you try to connect to your audience on a deeper and more elaborate way, you actually have the time do not rush it and let the music sink in properly. But out here in the Western World, in Europe, you’re given around an hour or 45 minutes or 50 minutes where you’re supposed to make sure that the audience gets the very best experience you can possibly bring forth. My goal is to give these people, all people I perform for, joy and peace. It’s a lot more professional when I perform in Europe, and a lot more personal when I perform at home, because of and thanks to this.