One of the greatest performers I’ve ever seen was Omar Souleyman, the wedding singer from northwestern Syria whose music rapidly gained a global cult fanbase around the late 2000s. He was slick and preeminently cool, never removing his sunglasses and commanding the crowd with a laidback slink that to me was reminiscent of Prince—both fully confident in their musicality. Along with his keyboardist/collaborator Rizan Sa’id, the duo translated multinational dabke—pan-Arabic folk music—through the techno buzz of Korg synthesizers, a hyped up, celebratory dance party. Souleyman’s popularity embodied music lovers’ best hopes for the internet—that it would be enough of a neutralizer and a conduit that we could hear music such as his, music that we might not otherwise be afforded the chance to hear.
As it happens, I almost didn’t get to see Souleyman that day in August 2013, at the Way Out West Fest in Gothenburg, Sweden; for weeks, Swedish officials had been denying him a visa, afraid that while there he would apply for asylum to escape the ongoing Syrian Civil War that was just then picking up in intensity. (He did not.) Back then I thought it was ironic, too, that I was seeing him all the way in Sweden, as he’d performed several times in the U.S. before and since, and plenty of my friends had seen him in the States. As of now, he’s next scheduled to play in New York City in May; assuming Donald Trump does not lift the Muslim Ban by then, Souleyman, a Sunni Arab, will not be allowed in.
Souleyman’s music reached far enough that he once collaborated with Kieren Hebden, the British electronic musician known as Four Tet, and it was that experience, Hebden tweeted, that prompted him to create a playlist of music made by musicians from the countries in Trump’s ban: Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Libya. He includes a host of folk music from those countries but also delves into the more modern: the groovy Iranian singer Martik, a jubilant and funky pop song from Syria’s Saria al Sawas, a beautiful Somali ballad of freedom and hope from Abdullah Kershi and Ahmad Sherif. In the most basic way, as well as the most visceral, listening to these songs further drives home the loss of isolationism, and the calamity of shutting ourselves down to the beautiful cultures of the world. And at its best, it reminds us that humanity and love will prevail, but we must fight for it. Let this be a soundtrack.