Omar Souleyman sings for his troubled Syria at SXSW

AFP, Sunday 17 Mar 2013

Syrian musician Omar Souleyman gives performance to raise awareness about the Syrian humanitarian crisis in American 10 day festival

Omar Souleyman performs at SXSW (Photo: AFP)

Syria's Omar Souleyman arrived literally at the 11th hour at South by Southwest (SXSW) for a benefit concert in the wee hours of Saturday for victims of the conflict in his homeland.

Souleyman, a cult favorite among world music fans across the globe, trekked from Turkey, where he and his family live as refugees, via Syria and Lebanon, overcoming road blocks and US visa red tape along the way.

So arduous was his journey that he missed a scheduled panel appearance Friday afternoon where he was to discuss Syria's plight to participants in the 10-day interactive, film and music festival that concludes this weekend.

He finally arrived in hard-partying Austin -- about as far from the violence and misery in Syria as anyone can get -- barely two hours before he was to take the stage at a benefit concert attended by several hundred fans.

Organizers said the event, titled Our Heart Aches for Syria, raised several thousand dollars to be distributed via the Red Cross to both Syrian refugees and those still inside the country two years after the fighting began.

It was too early to say exactly how much was collected, but tickets at the door sold for $10 each -- with additional contributions very much welcome -- for a night that also included a raft of alt-rock acts.

"I do not view this as an opportunity to educate anyone about the fighting in Syria. That is not my purpose," Souleyman told the official SXSW magazine prior to arriving in Austin.

"I would like that people simply pay attention to how Syrian people are suffering," added the musician, a regular on the international music festival circuit who last played in Austin in November 2011.

Souleyman, a native of northeastern Syria who sings in Arabic and Kurdish, took to the stage in his trademark keffiyeh headdress and sunglasses, with YouTube images of the fighting in Syria flashing on a screen behind him.

Accompanying him was his virtuoso keyboards player Rizan Said.

His New York manager Mina Tosti, a key figure in getting SXSW to agree to host a Syria charity event, told AFP that Souleyman would be staying in United States to record a new album in New York next week.

"We wanted a visible platform" to raise American awareness of what Syrians are going through, she said, and "I thought the best place would be a gathering of creative minds" such as SXSW, which is attended by tens of thousands.

Also keenly involved were indie garage rockers the Black Lips out of Atlanta, Georgia, who shared the bill with Souleyman along with four other bands from as far afield as Vancouver, Canada.

Big fans and supporters of the one-time wedding singer whose music has been described as "Syrian techno," the Black Lips got a first-hand taste of the Arab Spring when they toured Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon last year.

"His reach is very, very worldwide," Souleyman's publicist Graeme Flegenheimer told AFP. "To me, he has the potential to be on the cult level of a Bjork or a David Byrne, and very respected."

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