Saturday, August 29, 2015

Omar Souleyman profile in the Guardian

I'm not sure why these types of articles bother me, but they do.

I like Omar Souleyman, but that's not the point of this post. This is about the way in which he's profiled in Western media.  These kinds of 750-1000 word mini-profiles are standard fare for non-music exclusive online and print media, but even within that relatively short word limit, there is plenty of space for digging into a musician's background and providing some meaningful analysis. But for this piece about Omar Souleyman (which is typical of the coverage he's been given since becoming a semi-known name in the English speaking world), it's amazing how little research goes into understanding the culture he comes from.

First, the article tap dances around the reasons for his success.  It's presented as a mystery still waiting to be solved -- his music is unlike anything else on US and UK pop radio, so why have people taken to it?  If you've never heard a Souleyman song, the article offers a description -- his music features "[a] dizzying use of ululating keyboards, pounding synthesized beats, and throaty vocals".  You might as well say that a certain techno artist's music features "looping, hypnotic beats, a club-rattling bassline, and a catchy electronic riff that belies the lack of vocals".  In other words, thousands of Middle Eastern musicians could fit that description, so it doesn't tell us very much at all.

We know why Western audiences have been paying attention to Souleyman's music.  Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) likes his music and has produced albums for Souleyman that have been released on Western music labels.  Souleyman has a few well-connected friends who have helped open doors for him.  That's what sets him apart from other Middle Eastern artists who don't have the same connections.  I've read countless articles about white rock bands that meticulously catalog their rise to prominence in the music industry in ways that are less than flattering -- in the right place at the right time when four A&R people happened to wander into one of their concerts hoping to check out a different band on the same bill, mentored by managers and producers with plenty of clout, etc. -- and searched for quality within their music as an afterthought.  With Souleyman the narrative gets flipped, the role of his well-connected collaborators are ignored, and a desperate search for greater meaning behind his popularity is halfheartedly begun but left unfinished lest people find (justifiable) reasons to doubt the entire premise.

Second, for an article about an artist from a troubled country, politically, there is absolutely no attempt to dig deeper into the artist's thoughts on the subject.  Half of the paragraphs mention the Syrian civil war and/or Souleyman's relationship with his home country. Don't get me wrong, I am not at all a fan of bringing political discussion into musician profiles.  But if you're going to devote so much attention to it in the article (and obviously Souleyman's career has been influenced by the situation in Syria), then why not ask Souleyman for his opinion on the matter?  Which side is he on?  Again, it shouldn't be relevant which side he's on, but it's impossible to imagine taking a "political" bent in an article about a Western (or Israeli) artist and not at least raising the issue.  Is Syrian politics off-limits in a way that Western (or Israeli) is not?

Third, every article on Souleyman makes reference to him as a "wedding singer" with hundreds of live albums to his credit.  The inference is that he has only recently crossed over to being a "proper" recording artist after decades performing in obscurity at weddings.  To a Western reader, a wedding singer is not a "real" artist (i.e. not a contemporary pop music singer), just like a "wedding DJ" isn't a real club DJ who tours the world and plays in top dance clubs.  Nobody would assume anything different without the proper context.  Another example -- in North American movies, hit songs from movies are songs contributed to the soundtrack by established artists, not songs that are sung by the actors themselves (exceptions such as the Grease soundtrack are rare).  This is not true for many movies made in India, for example.

The truth is that the natural sphere for a performer like Souleyman is the wedding circuit.  Appearances at weddings and other celebrations pay extremely well and are considered prestige gigs.  For a Western artist, once your songs get on the radio and you release an album, your days playing concerts at non-ticketed events are over.  That's not how it works in the Middle East -- even the biggest artists with their songs all over the radio will still hire themselves out for private parties (in addition to whatever solo gigs they might play).

Why does it matter?  The first two points can be hand-waved away via vague notions of adhering to "cultural sensitivity".  That's fine, but for the third point, cultural sensitivity suddenly becomes unimportant, and Souleyman is presented as somewhat who rose from wedding singer obscurity to performing for adoring ticket-buying customers at Western clubs and festivals.  That's the kind of narrative that Western readers can easily relate to, but it's not accurate and actually disrespects Souleyman, his culture, and his music.  

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