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Concert preview: Syrian Omar Souleyman will 'sing in every color' at Living Traditions Festival

Published May 18, 2017 8:39 pm

Concert preview • Three-day event in SLC will feature a world music/electronica artist whose upbeat music reflects the culturally diverse area he came from.
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Hardcore fans of internationally celebrated music acts such as The Cure and Pearl Jam carefully cultivate their collections of bootlegged shows and songs their favorites have performed.

They may not be able to touch devotees of Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman, who is thought to have some 500 albums on the market.

Friday night's headlining performance at the Living Traditions Festival, held at Library Square in Salt Lake City, perhaps cannot match some of his recent notable appearances, including at Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, Roskilde, and the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo.

But it can boost his running total to 501(ish).

Not bad for a guy who couldn't envision his humble beginnings as a part-time wedding singer in the northeast corner of Syria would even enable him to go beyond his nation's borders, let alone travel the world.

"When I was younger, I never thought that I would be able to leave my country, just by singing," he once said via translator in an interview with punk legend-turned-cultural historian Henry Rollins. "I knew I had a good voice, but being successful is not just having a nice voice — it takes a lot more than that. I never thought that I would be able to travel to Europe or a lot of the places that I've been."

The Living Traditions Festival is now in its 32nd year. The event will take place Friday (5-10 p.m.), Saturday (noon-10 p.m.) and Sunday (noon-7 p.m.), and features myriad artistic forms, including dance, music, painting, sculpture and food. The festival is free to the public.

Souleyman grew up in Tell Tamer, Syria, which is near the borders of Iraq and Turkey. Rather than focus on the differences of the various people in the area, Souleyman embraced them all and folded them into his unique brand of dabke, an upbeat style of folk/pop traditionally played in celebratory events, such as weddings.

The result was that Souleyman appealed to everyone, and soon found his services in great demand.

"I tried to take influence from everybody so that I could make everybody happy, so that everybody enjoyed listening to the music, because it was familiar as far as what they were used to listening to," he told Rollins.

"There are some singers who sing in one color," he added. "Some singers only sing in Arabic. The place I'm from belongs to multiple people. Just because I'm from Syria doesn't mean I'm just an Arab. I try to sing in every color. I want everybody to be happy and to have fun listening to my music."

Most of Souleyman's "albums" began as recordings presented to the weddings' families as a gift. They proved popular enough that copies were inevitably made and sold at markets and kiosks throughout the region.

This eventually led to travel opportunities, where Souleyman was exposed to yet more styles. As a result, he's now internationally known for an extreme-uptempo world music/electronica hybridization.

He's also gotten to collaborate with the likes of Björk and to record some "official" albums of his own as well. His eighth, "To Syria, With Love," is scheduled for a June 2 release. His first single from the album, "Ya Bnayya," is out now.

And while those releases do mix in some slower, "malwal"-style songs — typically about longing and unrequited love — Souleyman said he makes it a point to skip such tracks during live performances.

He wants Salt Lake City — and everywhere else — just to dance and have a good time.

"I only sing songs about happiness when I'm at a festival or at a concert or performing at a wedding," he told Rollins. "So the music that you are hearing, if the tempo is upbeat, it's because the lyrics are also positive."

As a native of a country in the midst of a brutally violent civil war, he, better than many, often understands the need to sometimes just disconnect from the world and allow music to sweep you away.

He added that he loves American audiences because they truly embrace that mentality at his shows.

"Every stage that I've stood on in America, I've had a very good experience," he said. "Because I feel the audiences fulfill my wish, which is I come in and I sing for an hour, and the whole time everyone is dancing and they're happy — and that's all I want from a performance, to see the people in the crowd have fun. So every stage that I've sung on in the United States, I've been given that wish.


Twitter: @esotericwalden —

Omar Souleyman

Living Traditions Festival special guest artist

When • Friday, 9 p.m.

Where • Library Square (North Stage), 450 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets • Free

Living Traditions Festival

This three-day festival, now in its 32nd year, celebrates Utah's cultural diversity, offering more than 80 music and dance performances, 30 master craftspeople, 17 food vendors and a children's area with hands-on opportunities to explore different cultural traditions. Visit livingtraditionsfestival.com for a full schedule of events and offerings.

When • Friday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.

Where • Salt Lake City Library and Washington Square, 450 S. 200 East.

Admission • Free






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