Release Date: Jul 24, 2015
Record label: Monkeytown
The story of Omar Souleyman’s rise into pop culture outside of the Middle East has been repeated enough times that it’s become a myth unto itself. Souleyman was already a force in his native Syria, preforming at thousands of weddings with his stellar band, with well over 500 recordings of his work floating around. He described his music as, “from the community I come from – the Kurdish, the Ashuris, the Arabic, they’re all in this community.
How refreshing it is to be able to report on that rare thing these days, a Syrian good news story. For that is what Omar Souleyman is able to provide, despite his position as a Syrian musician in exile. With the release of Bahdeni Nami the ratio between his studio and live albums narrows to approximately one in 250, the wedding singer turned recording artist having dispensed copies of many of his sets to the happy couples involved.
For those unfamiliar with the music of Omar Souleyman, the Syrian wedding singer who transformed traditional dabke music into a hyperactive electronic stomp, it’s not like much else. It’s so fast that the only appropriate way to engage with it is to wriggle your limbs. Melodies are both abrasive and ebullient, chattering endlessly like raucous birdsong.
Even at this stage in his eventful musical career, Omar Souleyman still has something to say in his own inimitable way. Bahdeni Nami finds the 49-year-old, Syrian-born singer on the Monkeytown label and again working with producer Four Tet on production. By now, Souleyman's high-energy sound has become his signature, but this seven-track effort switches things up ever so slightly; subtle twists of pace, cadence and lyrical content reveal a more introspective endeavour.It's worth noting that the album literally means "after sleep" and conceptually is about lovers and longing.
With dialogue synonymous of The Simpsons’ cultural prowess in Season 7, Marge and Homer search for the essence of “cool”. They linger upon the conceptions of how it’s cool not to care, or to be square; and how one actually knows they are “cool”. Bart affirms that in the end one has to be told, otherwise “how would you know?”. In the press release for Bahdeni Nami, Modeselektor called Omar Souleyman “the coolest man on the planet”.
Bahdeni Nami is technically Omar Souleyman’s second album, but in his 20-plus years as a musician, the Syrian singer has reportedly put out over 500 recordings, mostly mixes from weddings he performed at before he began to gain notoriety. That type of workhorse longevity is rare, but Souleyman is a singular entity of tireless genre exploration. Bahdeni Nami is more proof that one of the most exciting voices in electronic music is a 49-year-old Syrian man, and that he’s exactly what the genre needs.
For the uninitiated, this record may seem like a shock, but for fans of the Syrian wedding singer turned cult music star, Omar Souleyman's debut for Monkeytown simply makes sense. From the list of collaborators (including Four Tet, Gilles Peterson, Legowelt and label bosses Modeselektor) to its punchy energy throughout, Bahdeni Nami is in essence a party record, albeit a kind that many will be unfamiliar with.Souleyman learnt his craft performing at weddings and other ceremonial occasions. Legend has it he would present the bride and groom with a recording every time, leading to an unprecedented number of "unofficial" Souleyman albums in circulation.
Though he has been exiled to Turkey since civil war broke out in his native Syria, Omar Souleyman, arguably the world's most recorded wedding singer, has been making the rounds of the globe's festival stages, from Bonnaroo and All Tomorrow's Parties to WOMAD, Field Day, Big Ears, and SXSW. Four Tet's Kieran Hebden did a beautiful job in being largely inconspicuous when he produced 2013's Wenu Wenu, Souleyman's official debut studio album (after a slew of comps and -- literally -- hundreds of live cassettes). Its follow-up, Bahdeni Nami, is released on Modeselektor's Monkeytown label, and features productions not only from Hebden but label auteur Gilles Peterson and a remix by Legowelt, in addition to a pair of "straight" dabke jams.
It's not always easy to tell who the person is behind the persona that is Omar Souleyman—what's really going on behind the aviator shades, the poker face, the dissonance between the high-speed jangling dance music bumping out of speakers and his relatively motionless stage presence. But if Bahdeni Nami is any indication, the man who's become the frontrunner of Syrian techno dabke is, among other things, a human being, who like anyone else is prone to heartbreak. Souleyman's last release and first "proper" studio album, Wenu Wenu, produced by Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), was colorful in its exuberance, a headlong rush into new love.
First thing you notice about Omar Souleyman’s second studio album (and kajillionth when you count his live catalog) is the tempo. Bahdeni Nami’s opening “Mawal Menzal,” jogs roughly ten, maybe even 20 bpm behind the bulk of his work, which is usually frantic and marvelous, not a coincidence. “Mawal Menzal” is less of a departure than a screw ‘n’ chop: it’s slower for no apparent dynamic reason, vocals reaching less for the back of the audience than the echoless walls of a racquetball court.
Omar! What a wonderfully weird road you have walked down. Originally from the Hasake region of Syria, he earned his musical stripes by singing at birthdays, christenings and weddings.Now, having performed everywhere from the Nobel Peace Prize Concert to massive gig venues across Europe, he has fans in Four Tet (who produces the brilliant, winding 'Bahdeni Nami' here) to Modeselektor ('Leil El Bareh' and 'Enssa Ek Aatab') and Legowelt ('Bahdeni Nami').Monkeytown is the perfect place for his Syrian sounds to blend with European electronic producers, but with only six new songs (and just seven tracks in total), it could have been a longer trip.Check out one of the tracks from the album below. .
It would be unfair to make out Omar Souleyman as some kind of novelty turn, but moustachioed Syrian wedding singers don’t tend to break on the world stage terribly often, let alone stick around when they do. Nine years have passed since globetrotting American label Sublime Frequencies released ‘Highway To Hassake’, a compilation of Souleyman’s insanely catchy dabke disco that introduced him and his group to Western audiences. Since, the fortysomething bandleader has been feted by Damon Albarn and Björk and slayed crowds from Womad to Field Day, largely by playing exactly the same music that’s sold on cassette through kiosks in his native Syria.
'His most personal recording to date,' the presser said. Uh-huh. Sure. Do strobe lights and throbbing headaches and a thousand stomping bodies sound like an intimate evening to you? Don’t get me wrong. I dig that Middle Eastern desert flair in music as much as the next guy. But I’d like to ….
Despite playing his brand of wild, effervescent party anthems across several continents, Omar Souleyman is a strange anomaly in the Arab world. He's not necessarily representative of the Middle Eastern musical zeitgeist, nor does he have any peers in the region as such. But he has garnered respect – in spite of the dubious honour of being one of the NME's Cool List alumni - to Western onlookers in the last few years.
Many will be drawn to Omar Souleyman’s new album because of the involvement of electronic producers Four Tet, Modeselektor, Gilles Peterson and Legowelt, but their sonic personalities are barely audible compared to Souleyman’s own larger-than-life presence. With the exception of Lego-welt’s acid industrial remix of the title track, Bahdeni Nami isn’t a big departure from the high-octane modern dabke sound he’s honed over decades as a Syrian wedding singer. His collaborators mostly stay out of the way of a winning formula, resulting in a subtly cleaner and bigger version of the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of lo-fi cassettes of live performances that make up most of Souleyman’s discography.