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SPIN Essentials

Omar Souleyman’s Intense, Swooning ‘Wenu Wenu’ Brings Dabke to the Club-Kid Masses

Omar Souleyman / Photo by Jimmy Fontaine
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 22, 2013
Label: Ribbon

Silly things will be written about this record, so let me emphasize up top that, overhyped or not, a fine record it is, and fine in a distinct way. But with Omar Souleyman — especially as heard outside the Levant, as the region encompassing his Syrian homeland as well as Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Cyprus was once known — “fine” is a double-edged word, because it suggests how subtly we’re forced to make distinctions within his catalogue. Americans who already enjoy Souleyman’s music don’t understand lyrics that explore only one theme anyway, or grok the rhythmic and melodic heritage modernized by his hectic, insistent, electrified, some-say-“techno” version of the long-running Levantine genre called dabke. So we compare his six U.S.-released albums and ask, “This bunch of six-minute songs by an impassioned masculine baritone chanting over vamped synth riffs and electronic multi-percussion — or that one?”

Wenu Wenu posits a simple answer to this question — this one, because it’s in front of you. Where the others (starting with 2006’s Highway to Hassake) are on the tiny Sublime Frequencies label, which made its tiny name bootlegging songs off Asian radio and compiling them in pressings of 1,000, this one’s on major-indie Domino. Hence it’s easier to find in the store if you got one, hence it’s cheaper, hence club kids who never go near “world music” know about it. And where the others were culled from Souleyman’s many live and home-recorded tapes (500 are said to have been “released” locally since the mid-’90s) by Iraqi-American musical troublemaker Mark Gergis, this one was produced in a professional studio by Four Tet electronica innovator Kieran Hebden. Hence both instrumental and vocal sounds take on added presence, depth, texture, and clarity.

Not that the Gergis collections are faint or fuzzy — he found quality recordings of this unsubtle music. But Hebden has definitely achieved a cleaner sound, reaching out to mess-averse electronica fans and documenting Souleyman’s live presentation as it has evolved since he started touring internationally circa 2007. Originally, Souleyman brought along Ali Shaker on an electrified lute called the saz, but recently his backing has been reduced to synth master Rizad Sa’id. Wenu Wenu sticks to those basics.

What you get is a simple thing you’ve never heard before. The structure is invariably call-and-response, with Sa’id stating and repeating a cheesy-sounding riff, and Souleyman groaning or beseeching or braying or belting a line he’ll most commonly repeat twice and then complete thematically with a second repeated line, all of which he’ll more likely than not reprise later. Lyrics invariably evoke courtship in extremis: “I don’t want heaven / I only want my love” or “Where is she where is she / The one who I loved where is she?”; new students following the translations should be aware that the “Mercedes” in “Khattaba” is “taxi” in Arabic and comes around 2:12. Every so often Souleyman will signal a turn with his trademark, a rising aayyyy-upp or aay-yahh that sounds to me like a teamster driving a line of pack animals. Scales are Middle Eastern, obviously; tempos range from up to mid-plus; the programmed drums generate rhythms that few American tub-thumpers could map, much less replicate. There’s far more variety in what Sa’id plays than in what Souleyman sings — flute sounds, an orchestra once. But Souleyman’s intensity nails it.

On its home turf, dabke is wedding music, and in its many forms — the term would seem to be as elastic as “blues” — has long had the function of inspiring line-dancing. How club kids will dance to it remains to be determined — less than Domino hopes is my guess. But Souleyman is certain to become more famous than he already is, which is more than he ever imagined, although he must have hoped the simplification of folkloric dabke that made him a star in Syria would have international reach. Unsurprisingly, he is now based in Turkey. As a horrendous conflict wrecks Syria, Souleyman pursues no political agenda whatsoever while reminding us vividly how worked up human beings can get about a life-and-death matter that only occasionally induces them to kill each other — namely, romantic love.

One more thing. Like Hebden sometimes, I enjoy a little mess in my music. So my favorite Souleyman remains 2011’s Haflat Gharbia, recorded live at tour stops around the world with Sa’id, Shaker’s saz, and a Christian poet also since dropped. And my favorite dabke album features no Souleyman: Dabke: Sound of the Syrian Houran, crazier and less standardized turn-of-the-century tracks compiled in 2012 by Gergis on Sham Palace. If you like Wenu Wenu, you might give either a try. You might even take the plunge and dive into them first.