Omar Souleyman

To Syria, With Love

Omar Souleyman swaps a little bit of his dabke joy for heartbreak, and creates his heaviest, hardest record in years.

The story of Omar Souleyman remains unique even in these vaguely enlightened, increasingly globalised times. Several other artists from the Middle East have managed to cross over to a western audience, but the sheer realness of Omar Souleyman remains miraculously intact. He’s not some traditionalist Syrian folk act wheeled out under the ‘world music’ banner, nor is he a slick pop singer playing what’s essentially western music with an exotic twist.

Okay, perhaps Souleyman’s music is something of a modern update of dabke – a traditional folk dance from his part of the world – but it’s made with a focused vision and unshakeable energy even many of the modern Tuareg rockers from Mali and Mauritania can’t match. Souleyman’s dabke is as repetitive and ecstatic as motorik or minimal techno, never straying from its purpose: to get people dancing. It’s as jagged and sheer as house music, ready to blast out of a car stereo, unlike the Lawrence Of Arabia soft focus heat haze that adorns Tuareg rock. After years of fair success, Souleyman’s relatively ugly, digital, crystal-clear music still sounds cheap. The shape of most songs haven’t altered much either, and his delivery remains almost entirely unchanged. Most of the tempos are even bloody identical. Yet somehow, sticking with this streamlined simplicity makes To Syria, With Love his most potent record in years.

When Souleyman shifted from releasing music via Sham Palace and Sublime Frequencies (both labels associated with his original champion, Mark Gergis), to putting out the Four Tet produced Wenu Wenu on Domino in 2013, the man emerged from obscurity and lo-fidelity into uncharted territory for a Syrian wedding singer. 2015’s follow-up Bahdeni Nami added Modeselektor, Legowelt, and Gilles Peterson to Souleyman’s list of collaborators – but the formula began to wear slightly thin. Whatever it was that happened (I can’t really speculate), Souleyman jettisoned any acoustic instruments from his setup, along with longtime synths-and-rhythms man Rizan Sa’id, who’s now been replaced by Hasan Alo, also from Al-Hasakah in northwestern Syria like Souleyman.

Admittedly the resultant change is far from huge – Omar Souleyman’s music is often far too formulaic for that – but born out of the very slightest trimming back (the entire musical operation is now just Souleyman and his keyboard player), there’s an undoubted increased urgency to these tunes. This may come as somewhat surprising news to those of you keeping count, as To Syria, With Love has come out via Mad Decent, aka Diplo’s label. So Omar Souleyman is now labelmates with Major Lazer and Jack Ü. By most accepted logic this shouldn’t be a better record than the two produced by Four Tet. But it is.

The conflict that continues to tear Syria to pieces, and that displaced both Souleyman and Alo, has been an elephant in the room for Souleyman’s recent career. His songs, with lyrics written by old friend and collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad, have always focused on love and romance. No surprise there, considering this is music designed for weddings and dancing – nobody wants to spend their wedding reception jigging to songs about IS and bombings. As implied by the title though, To Syria, With Love is a bit of a shift. The Syrian plight is mentioned directly, and Souleyman is really starting to sound like he misses his homeland.

“We are in exile, and our nights are long / Our homeland is our only comfort / Life caused us so much pain our wounds are too many and every wound calls out, ‘We miss Al-Jazira’” (NB: Al-Jazira is one of the names for Souleyman’s home region, also known as Al-Hasakah.)

But what difference does it all make to a non-Arabic speaker anyway? Much of the album sounds as celebratory and joyous as ever. In fact more so! The gigantic stomp and techno-inspired histrionics of opening track ‘Ya Boul Habari’ exudes more energy than anything off the Four Tet albums. Alo’s backing tracks also rely a bit less heavily on the omnipresent dabke handclap, restlessly hitting the ‘drum fill’ button on his keyboard every few seconds. That said, the constant kick of the kick is perhaps the album’s biggest weakness. The producer/keyboardist’s many fresh touches make up for it though; there’s simply more going on. Hell, ‘Aenta Lhabbeytak’ and ‘Khayen’ even have a Latin pop guitar strumming away somewhere in the back.

Downbeat bluesy penultimate track ‘Mawal’ makes it clear Souleyman’s switching some of that joy for despair. The song’s one of the slowest and gentlest he’s produced for years, lumbering along a funereal bassline (although Alo’s right hand never ceases from unfurling those digital Arabic scales and piercing solos). Translated lyrics reveal the tune’s bleeding heart and soul. It’s a pretty heartbreaking summation of what life is like for the five million or more Syrians moved outside of their home country by merciless war: “Oh, I’m tired of looking for home / And asking about my loved ones / My soul is wounded.”

As time goes on, Souleyman’s voice grows gruffer and rougher, scarred by cigarette smoke and his experiences. The handful of slower, gentler, and sadder moments in Souleyman’s discography have always been massive highlights too – but this is the album when his unique position as a relatively well-known Syrian singer in the west nudges him out of that traditional role as wedding entertainment.

It’s shiny, and it’s slick, and it’s a step even further away from his past, issuing tin-can tape recordings and lo-fi dabke epics. I mean, it’s released on bloody Diplo’s label. Some listeners are bound to find this repetitive too, and nowhere near different enough from his previous work. Yet To Syria, With Love is also Souleyman’s heaviest and hardest record since Leh Jani back in 2011.

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