Photo contributed by Alex Hect
The career trajectory of Omar Souleyman is an extremely unlikely success story. Originally a farmer and construction laborer hailing from the Al-Hasakah Governorate in the far northeastern corner of Syria, Souleyman began moonlighting as wedding singer in the mid 1990s, performing dabke, a style of Arabic folk dance. His high energy fusion of traditional dabke instrumentation and melodies with electronic beats was an instant hit in Syria and led to him releasing a mind-blowing collection of over 500 albums (many of these live recordings from wedding performances).
In 2006 the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies, a record label specializing in music not typically available to Western audiences, began releasing compilations of Souleyman’s remastered “greatest hits,” culling material from his vast discography. Public interest grew in his work, leading to collaborations with Icelandic avant-pop singer Bjork and English electronic musician Four Tet as well as multiple tours of the United States, recordings of which were compiled on the live album “Haflat Gharbia (The Western Concerts).”
Unfortunately, last week’s presidential executive order temporarily suspending entrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries threatens to curtail the momentum that Souleyman has spent decades building. Souleyman currently has another U.S. tour and album release scheduled for this spring and his entry would be denied, regardless of whether or not he had already obtained a valid visa
Eric Gilbert is the founder and director of Treefort, a multi-day music festival that takes place every March in Boise. Gilbert fondly recalls booking Souleyman as one of the headlining acts for the 2015 festival.
“I think his music is great. I think we collectively believe strongly in the ability of cultural exchange to bring down barriers. That was a good, obvious opportunity at the time and even more obvious now,” he said.
The travel ban has complicated plans Gilbert has made for additional international performers as well.
“The same year there was this band The Muckers from Tehran, Iran, that were confirmed to play the festival but they couldn’t get their visas,” he said. “Since then I’ve been actively trying to help get them into the States, working with their immigration lawyers and helping them book a tour. Last year they were denied again and this year they were so close and when this [immigration ban] happened a week and a half ago it finalized delaying them longer. It’s always funny when I hear people talk about porous borders and we can’t even get a rock band into the United States. It’s taken two years!”
The supreme irony of the United States preventing an Iranian rock band from entering the country is that performing rock music in Iran is seen as a subversive act, a symbolic embrace of Western values and rejection of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many forms of secular music were banned and only until the late 1990s was rock and roll openly allowed. Even now it is severely restricted, mostly confined to underground house concerts. The 2009 docu-drama film “No One Knows About the Persian Cats” covers this subject extensively.
Despite the murkiness of Souleyman’s status, a statement from his press agent Mina Tosti reflects a spirit of optimism and tenacity about his upcoming tour of the United States.
“We have absolutely no plans to cancel any of our scheduled U.S. touring plans this May nor our album release! The New York and Detroit dates are only two announced of many dates planned for just May — the rest have simply not yet been announced — but they will be shortly. We have only plans to fight this and win.”
Like most “temporary” federal security measures (i.e the Patriot Act) the travel suspension will likely become a permanent fixture of immigration policy. It’s unfortunate that such measures, no matter how well intentioned they are claimed to be, carry the unintended consequence of restricting elements that have the potential to bring mutual understanding between cultures. If Omar Souleyman can bring joy to thousands of concertgoers, compelling them to dance and be merry, shouldn’t we welcome that?
James Dean Kindle is the East Oregonian’s entertainment columnist, the executive director of the Oregon East Symphony and a Pendleton musician. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.