Omar Souleyman, a 49-year-old farmer-turned-wedding-singer from north-eastern Syria and a father of 9, is an unlikely electronic music star. This month he drew big crowds to KOKO, one of London’s most iconic music venues. Donning the jalabiya and keffiyeh, traditional Arab garments, along with his signature aviator shades, he performed to a packed out venue full of white middle-class youth. Yet his appeal is not without controversy.
Standing solemnly on stage with his keyboardist, Hamid al-Mousa, the setup is as basic as it gets. His electro-dabke, an “updated” form of traditional Middle Eastern folk music, has drawn a cult following. Adapted by Kieran Hebden (who goes by the name Four Tet), a British producer, Mr Souleyman’s music seems to satisfy an urge for the exotic among the nouveaux hipsters of England’s capital. Not always with success, however. His set at KOKO, which culminated in a track demanding audience participation, was met with a mildly excruciating silence from a crowd bewildered by the array of Arabic words and phrases. (A small pocket of ardent Arab fans right at the front did their best to make up for it.)