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. It's not like Omar has been procrastinating all these years, however - he's appeared on around 500 bootleg recordings since 1996, when he and keyboardist-composer Rizan Sa'id began to play the Syrian wedding circuit.
On Wenu, Wenu, Souleyman and Sa'id take traditional Syrian folk music and run 1000 volts through it, creating an infectious style that has affectionately (and accurately) been called 'Syrian Techno'. Listening to title track 'Wenu Wenu', you could almost imagine a joyous street party erupting as the pair perform - the handclap-driven percussion being evocative of a vibrant, dancing crowd, and the squiggly synth lines re-purposed from more traditional instrumentation. Indeed, Hebden's main duty as producer seems to have been to make sure the duo's live energy is preserved in these recordings, and he's succeeded admirably.
There's barely time to pause for breath after the mammoth seven minutes of the title track before 'Ya Yumma' kicks in, ramping up the album's already relentless pace even further as Sa'id outdoes himself with an outlandish synth solo. It's not until the record's mid-point that the pace drops a little, with 'Khattaba' featuring a smoother, more sultry feel and some dramatic string flourishes, as well as the record's only snatches of English - listen carefully and you can hear Souleyman namedrop Paris and London (perhaps as exotic destinations to transport his beloved to?).
Fortunately, language doesn't really seem to be a barrier here - given Souleyman's background, it would be safe to assume that these are all songs about love, passion and dedication, even if you don't have any sort of translation available. Indeed, Souleyman's positivity is granted additional poignancy given recent events in Syria - his music reminding us of the human side to these distant conflicts. Actually understanding the words isn't really necessary as long as you appreciate the intent behind them - for example, reading the translated lyrics in the video for 'Wenu Wenu' is useful to provide context, but trying to apply them directly to the song would simply diminish the effect. Similarly, the press release accompanying the album states that 'Mawal Jamar' is about being willing to walk over hot coals for the one you love, which provides more than enough meaning to the song's aching, impassioned vocals.
There are elements of western music in Souleyman's sound - 'Nahy's funk-indebted bass, 'Warni Warni's squelchy synth stabs, 'Mawal Jamar's incessant, house-y piano riff - but the album feels predominantly faithful to the music of his homeland. Crucially, however, it's made accessible enough for people (like me) who have no previous knowledge of dabke and therefore don't know their baladi from their shaabi. It's pretty much the perfect length too, with 'Yagbuni' dismantling itself in its spiralling conclusion just as the record hits the 40-minute mark - much more than that would probably have been a little overwhelming.
It's perfectly fair to say that Wenu Wenu won't appeal to everyone - you may think this album is a Crazy Frog level irritant, or you might think it's world-music-for-hipsters bullshit, and you'd be… entitled to those opinions. But the mere fact that this music exists for both the eastern and western world to hear is a beautiful thing - as is Wenu Wenu, in its own uniquely exuberant way. Approach this record with an open mind and you'll be surprised at how easily you can get caught up in it.
8Paul Faller's Score