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Omar Souleyman’s Spirit Knows No Walls

The Syrian singer brings his love letter to his homeland on tour in the States, travel ban be damned

The default position of anyone at an Omar Souleyman performance is, simply, up: palms up, arms up, face up, chest up, and mood, by extension, all the way up. At New York’s Le Poisson Rouge last week, the room was full an hour before he took the stage. Once he arrived, Souleyman led his fans by example, coolly extending his robed arms outward and clapping in between verses, the congregation responding on an exponentially more enthusiastic scale. Scarves and beads were whipped about and thrown at the low ceiling; couples twisted and turned, entwining themselves beneath the clumsy interlocking of their own hands. On the rare occasion that Souleyman would relinquish his microphone for a round of “HEY!”s from the crowd, it was always to a screamer in the front row, an ecstatic, flailing individual who didn’t sing along with the lyrics of the song they were dancing to but gladly took the baton the singer was passing anyway. As a couple hundred people checked their hips and their elbows to keep from decking the revelers beside them, Souleyman kept cool, an elegant figure swathed in an electronic din that beamed as he conducted the energy of the room forward, skyward, and always up.

Le Poisson Rouge is a far more compact venue than the ones Souleyman is used to performing in — the singer is as popular on the festival circuit today as he was on the wedding one before he started touring internationally. Souleyman famously worked as a wedding singer in his native Syria before the eruption of civil war rendered him an expatriate in 2011, and since, his sets — hypnotic, full-body experiences — reliably draw crowds by the thousands at Bonnaroo, Electric Zoo, and other high-octane events well-suited for his Arabic-inflected EDM meditations.

At festivals like those, the sky is literally the limit, and the energy of the audience adapts accordingly. A Bleecker Street basement full of outstretched arms is another thing entirely, but Souleyman's music proved easily adaptable to the space. In a time when the president encourages the construction of both metaphorical and literal walls of division, Souleyman’s universal appeal is cause for celebration — especially considering the hoops he had to jump through in order to make the show in New York at all.

Souleyman, as a Syrian musician playing for profit in the United States, nearly missed his own tour dates before Trump’s travel ban targeting citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, was struck down by multiple courts. He's in the United States to promote the release of his new album, To Syria, With Love, which will be released through Diplo’s Mad Decent on June 2. Plans for an appearance at SXSW were scrapped following the travel ban, but his tour — which included the New York show, presented by the World Music Institute in Brooklyn — is now moving forward, and if that boisterous basement is any indication, his fans will continue to show solidarity by showing up in droves.

On To Syria, With Love, longtime listeners of Souleyman’s will hear the familiar — albeit revved up — dabke and baladi strains that he and his collaborators, keyboardist Hasan Alo and lyricist Shawah Al Ahmad, explored on previous albums. Souleyman tackles the ache of homesickness on standout track “Mawal” (“Oh, I’m tired of looking for home / And asking about my loved ones / My soul is wounded”), which also opened his New York set. Otherwise, Souleyman's hour and change–long set pulled from Bahdeni Nami, his Four Tet–featuring 2015 album; Wenu Wenu, his 2013 studio album debut; and other seasoned selections from his catalogue that he’s perfected over the years. His routine is a predictable comfort that rarely strays from his strides, claps, and serenades, but the release it provides makes for both an aural escape for listeners and a return for Souleyman. Either way, come what may, you can count on him looking up.