Early in 2013, a few days prior to SXSW, Omar Souleyman found himself in a life-threatening situation while trying to get to the airport, a situation that, perhaps, most Western musicians never have to face. His harrowing trip to Austin led him through Lebanon, Syria and finally to Turkey. He dodged escalating warfare and visa problems before finally landing in Austin. A week later, Omar Souleyman was in New York recording his first Western studio album, Wenu Wenu, with producer Kieran Hebden of Four Tet. The record is set to arrive on the heels of an incredible run for the Souleyman, a native of Syria known for his interpretations of the Syrian folk musica called dabke. He and his fellow musicians add a flavor that Bjork once described as “Syrian techno.”
Souleyman has often added sounds and flavors of other popular, working-class genres of the Middle East, such as the Iraqi choubi and the Egyptian shaabi music, but Wenu Wenu is a primarily a dabke affair: frantic rhythms changing pace, a constant dance-floor stomp and a never-ending supply of snaking keyboard melodies in repetitive exaltation. Kieran’s distinguished ear for rhythm and dense textures lend to the mix without slowing Souleyman down. On “Warni Warni,” Souleyman’s longtime keyboard player Rizan Sa’id begins a repetitive melody before slowly unraveling it, leaving an opening for Souleyman’s interjections, and on the title track, Soulyeman’s pained voice brims with intensity. Wenu Wenu‘s sound is emblematic of Souleyman’s current status in the Western world: Indulging in the unlimited technical and textural possibilities of Four Tet’s mixing, Souleyman reaches out to his audience with a masterful stroke.