SYRIA: Wenu Wenu - Omar Souleyman
By isolating exactly what makes the music of his homeland unique, Souleyman takes dabke into the 21st Century
Nobody sounds quite like Omar Souleyman. As the album cover of Wenu Wenu suggests, Souleyman is an imposing, distinctive figure, with a thick handlebar moustache, traditional Arab keffiyeh, and dark sunglasses; this is in some ways reflective of his music. Souleyman takes traditional Syrian Arab music, as well as Turkish, Assyrian, and Kurdish music, and reworks it in his own inimitable style. The basis of the music is the Middle Eastern genre of dabke, popular across the Levant, but Souleyman creates what he calls dabke techno, because of his use of electronic instruments such as synths keyboards. It is fundamentally exuberant and energetic music, and that could very well be due to Souleyman’s origins. He is a farmer by trade, and he initially began his musical career as a wedding singer in the mid-1990s, honing his style as he went, updating regional styles for the modern day. Slowly building up a regional reputation, to the point now where he has an internationally successful music career, his music still feels inextricably linked to the dance floor, albeit no longer just the wedding dance floor. When you press play on track one of Wenu Wenu, what follows is an album of music that seems both old and new, retro and forward-thinking, utterly discombobulating yet completely enthralling, but never anything less than supremely entertaining.
“He’s not afraid to keep in moments where his voice cracks or falters, because he knows that accentuates the authenticity of the piece. When you hear him rasp or gasp, you get a sense of who he is as a performer.”
Though it is claimed he has released hundreds of albums, usually live recordings made at the many weddings he has performed at, this is technically his first properly released studio album. As such, it is technically his debut, with British music producer Kieran Hebden (better known by his stage name Four Tet) overseeing the creation of the album, but in reality, it’s nothing of the sort. Souleyman and his keyboardist Rizan Sa’id seem to have been allowed complete free reign to put their mark on the music, with Hebden not having had much input stylistically, though there is an element of British rave music hiding in the background of some of these tracks. That said, the feel of the tracks is Middle Eastern. Listen to songs like Wenu Wenu or Warni Warni, for my money the two best songs on the album, and you can’t help but feel transported to a Middle Eastern party. Souleyman’s characteristic yapping bark of a voice is endearingly rough and ready; it is a voice that relies on its imperfections make an impression. Souleyman is not the next Pavarotti. You won’t hear any spectacular vocal theatrics from him on this. He is, however, an extremely charismatic singer, mainly due to the fact that he knows how to use his voice to suit his music. He’s not afraid to keep in moments where his voice cracks or falters, because he knows that accentuates the authenticity of the piece. When you hear him rasp or gasp, you get a sense of who he is as a performer – raw, in the moment, organic.
The album is relatively short, and that’s probably a smart choice considering how exhausting it could be to listen to such rambunctious music all in one go. It is also deceptively simple music. The entire album has a similar dabke techno feel, all at a similar tempo, with the one exception being Mawal Jamar, a slightly slower tune. This simplicity begets its brilliance, however. Its repetition is designed to get you moving, and Souleyman and Sa’id’s method of doing so is to have these dense bursts of repetitive synth sounds that imitate more traditional instruments, overlain on top of sparse yet rhythmic drums, with his voice guiding you, almost ordering you into moving yourself to the rhythm. Dabke has seen several attempts at modernisation, but Souleyman’s version of it seem the most effective, the truest to the ideal of what dabke is, by which I mean a folk music aimed to get people dancing. By stripping away the frills from it, by working away at every extraneous detail of the music until just its bare, irresistible core of danceable music is present, with blaring, harsh, yet melodic modern instrumentation, he has managed to carve out a small section for himself in music history. Nobody sounds quite like Omar Souleyman.