- 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. After Sublime Frequencies released three compilations of the stuff, Björk got in touch for a collaboration, and Souleyman's high-energy party music was soon hailed as a revelation by a whole new audience.
Wenu Wenu is Souleyman's first studio record since he signed to Ribbon Music, a sub-label of Domino, and it's clearer and cleaner than anything we've heard from him before. The solid low-end, crisp samples and perfect timing of the opening track immediately sound a lot more professional than any of Sublime Frequencies' cassette-culls. One benefit of this clarity is that it allows the sheer dexterity of Souleyman's sideman, Rizan Sa'id, to shine though. Sa'id's wonderfully syncopated keyboard solos, often played with Arabic flute emulations, are a real source of wonder and excitement, and a key part of Souleyman's appeal.The pitch-wheel work on "Khattaba" is worthy of Funkadelic. On "Warni Warni," it could almost be a Prince guitar solo transposed for Casio keyboard.
Souleyman himself is in typically fine form, if a little restrained. His vocals are strong, his tone rich. On the title track he's full of longing, a bundle of energy on the lookout for a lost love. Near the end of the record, the tempo slows down, making his performance on "Mawal Jamar" more like a lament. You can hear the double-tracking of his voice in places, adding weight but limiting the spontaneity we're used to from him. Four Tet produced the record, and while presence is far from overwhelming, you can hear his touch in the details. The skillful use of reverb on a lot of tracks, most notably "Yagbuni," lends an epic sense of scale and helps glue the parts together.
It seems odd to complain about how well-recorded an album is, but if you're familiar with Souleyman's previous work, you'll sense something missing here which Hebden's skill can't replace. Records like Highway To Hassake and Dabke 2020 have the sound of an entertainer in front of an audience, too fired up to worry about anything but providing that rush. On Wenu Wenu, everything is present and correct, and that's part of the problem: it feels polished. Fetishistic lo-fi authenticity is certainly not the way forward, but maybe the sanitary world of the western recording studio isn't the best way to capture Souleyman's particular magic.
01. Wenu Wenu
02. Ya Yumma
05. Warni Warni
06. Mawal Jamar