Release Date: Oct 22, 2013
Record label: Ribbon Music
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Club/Dance, International, Middle Eastern Traditions, Syrian
With the bleak and increasingly desperate ongoing internal conflict, the news out of Syria in recent years has been unrelentingly distressing. Although his music represents the antithesis of everything that his country has tragically come to symbolise to most in the West, Omar Souleyman, a musician from Ra’s al-‘Ayn in the northestern region of Syria, at least partly has an implicit mission to present Syria and its culture in a positive way. Souleyman takes dabke, a traditional wedding dance and musical style, and, along with his musical partner, the keyboard player and composer Rizan Sa’id, makes of it a joyous and celebratory fusion.
Omar Souleyman has released around 500 albums. Yes, really. Souleyman does a roaring trade as a wedding singer on his Syrian hometown Ra’s al-‘Ayn’s local wedding scene. Once the sound system has been packed up, the newly-wed couple get a tape of the party, and his recordings are circulated on the streets as bootlegs.
My first exposure to Omar Souleyman came on the final day of ATP's 2011 Nightmare Before Christmas event. I wandered into Butlins to be greeted by music from literally thousands of miles away from the cold Minehead coast, Souleyman presiding over the sweltering crowd with effortless cool as his unmistakably Middle Eastern sounds filled the room. Fellow ATP performer and Caribou-collaborator Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) must have been impressed - for now, two years later, he's on production duties as Souleyman finally releases his debut studio record Wenu, Wenu.
Omar Souleyman is not the kind of guy you’d earmark for crossover fame. A moustachioed fortysomething gentleman in ever-present dark glasses and red and white kaffiyeh, Souleyman hails from a rural area of Syria near the Iraq border, and has spent most of his career playing weddings, his fame spreading across the region via a reported 500 releases recorded to cassette and passed around by hand or sold at local music kiosks. How, then, is Souleyman signed to an imprint of Domino, rubbing shoulders with Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys? Well his music is a blast – a high-speed collision of folk tradition and electronic instrumentation that sees him chanting and singing sincere love poetry in his native tongue over breakneck dabke rhythms, keyboard stabs and blazing electric saz solos.
After an estimated 500 bootleg wedding recordings, three compilations, and a live album issued by Sublime Frequencies, Omar Souleyman's modern dabke is finally captured in a recording studio with Four Tet's Kieran Hebden producing. Of course, accompanying him is his not-so-secret weapon, keyboard wizard Rizan Sa'id. Wenu Wenu contains seven selections, clocking in at a little under 40 minutes.
“Syrian techno” artist Omar Souleyman started his career performing traditional Middle Eastern dabke dance music for weddings, but now plays for much larger festival crowds in Europe and beyond. His sprightly and expressive electrified folk music is often recorded and performed live with longtime collaborator Rizan Sa’id. Recorded chiefly live in the studio with Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, Wenu Wenu is a jubilant seven-track song suite that showcases the genre’s rhythmic and lyrical versatility.
From the moment Wenu Wenu opens up, S-Xpress style, with an overcharged blast of synth before electronic reeds and Saz storm in alongside the gruff Syrian baritone of legendary wedding singer Omar Souleyman, it’s just a non-stop party. As the nights draw long and the temperature plummets, this record is a last nod towards hot summer nights and never-ending good times. The legend has it that while Souleyman has performed at countless weddings and made as many cassette recordings of his turns since the mid-90s, Wenu Wenu is in fact his debut album with trusted right-hand synth man Rizan Sa’id, and produced in Brooklyn by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden.
It seems wrong to refer to a musician with a 20-year long career and a catalog of recordings that allegedly runs into the mid-triple-digits as having a “debut” anything. But Omar Souleyman’s Wenu Wenu is in fact technically his first proper recording, having been cut in a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn rather than on site at one of the thousands of weddings he’s performed over the past two decades around his home in northern Syria, where his reputation as a performer par excellence once drove an entire economy of bootleg cassette recordings. Souleyman’s milieu is dabke, a style of folk dance music found at social gatherings across large swaths of the Middle East, built around intricately filigreed instrumental leads, exhortative singing, and pounding, trance-inducing rhythms.
Billing Omar Souleyman's new disc, Wenu Wenu, as his proper studio debut, though somewhat correct, is a bit misleading, as the celebrated Syrian singer, whose star has risen internationally in recent years, has actually been performing (largely at weddings) for two decades. For his official Western introduction, Souleyman enlists the guiding hand of Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet), who occupies a more technical role here, generally leaving Souleyman and his long-time bandmates to their own devices, while adding touches of polish from the sidelines. A combination of traditional percussion and early '90s drum machine rhythms propel the record's seven varied dance grooves, with the singer's short, commanding lyrical injections trading off against the album's almost incessant improvisational string of electrified buzuq melodies.
Omar Souleyman gained recognition outside his native Syria thanks to the crate-digging of Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies. A wedding singer in his home country, Souleyman has recorded more than 500 albums, mostly in editions of just one copy, which he would hand to the bride and groom after the reception. These recordings were then copied and bootlegged all across Syria.
Wedding-singer-cum-Björk remixer Omar Souleyman is known for urban Syrian dabke dance music. But his hookahbar synths, guitar-hero electric saz runs and blazing digitized hand percussion will probably translate to most Western ravers as EDM-grade belly-dance music. And why not? Singing in Arabic and Kurdish, he pitches R&B woo, invoking camelhair scarves ("Yagbuni") and Damascus honeymoons (the Arab-world hit "Khattaba") with ferocious vocal fricatives, while producer Kieran Hebdan (Four Tet) sharpens the attacks and decays without diluting the style.
The Kieran Hebden-produced Wenu Wenu is an inscrutable, occasionally delightful, and vaguely infuriating record. On the one hand, Omar Souleyman's voice is a transcendent delight, easily perforating language barriers with his scruffy Syrian lilt. On the other, the record sorely lacks in dynamics, particularly in its backing instrumentation—a relatively minor flaw considering its short running time, whose significance unfortunately grows the more one becomes enamored of Souleyman's performance.
The journey from Syrian wedding singer to hipster favourite is one of the more unusual career paths of recent years. But, such was the impact of Sublime Frequencies’ series of compilations culled from tapes released in Omar Souleyman’s homeland, his first studio album arrives amid a wave of internet hype. Souleyman’s music, a high-octane updating of traditional Middle Eastern dabke, full of passionately intoned vocals, screeching synths and techno beats, is an acquired taste, but one with a raw, irresistible energy and singular charm.
Hundreds of cassettes immortalising Omar Souleyman gigs regularly change hands in the Middle East. Thanks to a burgeoning profile in the west, there are a number of compilations featuring Souleyman's up'n'at'em singing and right-hand man Rizan Sa'id's hypnotic, almost lurid compositions. Wenu Wenu, though, finds the Syrian wedding singer in a studio with Kieran "Four Tet" Hebden, making plain the simpatico between this pumping, populist synth music and western rave culture.
Learning that the new album from Omar Souleyman, Wenu Wenu, was to be produced by the increasingly ubiquitous Four Tet gave the cynic in me a jolt. This was because when you listen to Omar Souleyman you are really listening to collaboration between him and Rizan Sa’id, his own producer and keyboardist. As the man credited with updating Syria’s dabke music into the wild variation it is today, Sa’id is arguably the reason why Souleyman has shot to global attention, just as much as his barking voice.
You can almost read the artwork of Omar Souleyman's releases since his Western debut, 2007's Highway To Hassake, as a prophetic storyboard. Those first two Sublime Frequencies releases still very much frame the man as the mysterious market stall cassette tape singer, while Jazeera Nights and Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts show Souleyman in sharp focus, emerging from the fuzzy analogue corners of the world as a tangibly real and living legend. In the latter he was already and perhaps tellingly standing defiant, his back to us as he faces the mirror to adjust the signature keffiyah.
Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws have been indie-rock bandleaders for more than 20 years: Mr. Caws with Nada Surf, Ms. Hatfield under her own name. And they must be well aware of the paradox when they sing “Such a loner/Hardly bring anyone over,” to open the thoroughly collaborative album they ….
opinion byJESSE NEE-VOGELMAN Legend has it that Souleyman got his start as a wedding singer, and rose to fame as rival bazar speaker salesman blasted bootlegged wedding tapes out of their wares. Legends cling to Souleyman; he’s the type of guy, sightings of whom will be reported for decades after his death. It’s not only his music’s ability to recall a place that is, to many of us, still mysterious and distant, but more how it slithers melodies into our head that stay there and breed like snakes.
A sensation in Syria since the 1990s, and recently in the internationalist crate-digging segment of the cool set, Omar Souleyman now releases his first studio album, though numerous live recordings, many on cassette, precede it. Often dubbed “Syrian techno,” this is folk music, made for debka-dancing at weddings, only souped up to high speed and laced with extravagant synthesizer solos by keyboardist Rizan Sa’id. “Wenu Wenu” lacks touches that give a Souleyman show its full charisma — the shouts to and from the audience, the presence of poet Mahmoud Harbi, who whispers to Souleyman the next line to sing, and Souleyman’s hipster-pleasing visual identity — a wiry chain-smoker in red keffiyeh and shades.