When Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman began recording in studios rather than from stages, his music inevitably changed. 2015's Wenu Wenu (produced by Kieran Hebden) was followed by 2016's Bahdeni Nami (on Modeselektor's Monkeytown) with Hebden, Gilles Peterson, and Legowelt all participating. Despite the modern production techniques, Souleyman's hyper brand of dabke remained mostly intact. Until now, that is. To Syria with Love signals a markedly different approach. While Souleyman's longtime lyric collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad remains co-writer on these tunes, pitch wheel keyboard madman Rizan Sa'id, the architect of Souleyman's trademark instrumental sound on over 500 records, is not. Those duties, along with arrangements, have been taken over by Hasan Alo of "Dilşad Diler" fame. Souleyman's manager Mina Tosti is listed as the set's producer.
The end result is a program of (mostly) medium-boil dabke and baladi, though singles "Ya Bnayya" and "Chobi" roil at noticeably higher temperatures. 21st century techno and electro provide the textural backdrops for these songs. While the difference between this and earlier recordings is jarring, the evolution was inevitable. Souleyman is no longer singing at weddings in Syrian cities and rural locales. He's been an exile living in Turkey for several years, and most of his time is spent working in Europe playing for large crowds in clubs and at festivals.
His stacked beats and loops are best heard on tracks such as "Es Samra" ("The Brunette"). Its shimmering, sequenced intro is appended by an enormous double-time four-on-the-floor main rhythm, with pitch wheel synth pyrotechnics playing in call and response with Souleyman's vocals. On "Khayen," funky disco pulses are woven through the synthetic dabke beats. Souleyman is as passionate as ever, though, even as synth blips, squeals, and squelches erupt between his phrases with samples of electric guitars, saz, and ouds adding more exotic textures. The real beauty on this album, however, is found in the slower tracks -- the forlorn "Mawal," for example, which addresses Souleyman's deep longing for home; it's almost a moaning blues with the rabat adding a dirgey, elegiac feel. Closer "Chobi" is more uptempo with a rubbery synth bass added to the multi-layered percussion samples and razor-wire synth lines, but the sympathies are the same as Souleyman's grainy baritone chants are delivered with a bottomless ache: "...Look upon us, O Lord/Our sadness is larger than mountains/We are in exile, and our nights are long/Our homeland is our/only comfort/We are in exile, and our nights are long/It’s hard to find comfort...." To Syria with Love was assembled with an eye toward expanding Souleyman's audience. Given the production and the wide selection of textural palettes and tunes, it's a good bet he'll be successful. It will likely keep longtime listeners in the fold, too, although the raw, unhinged feel of his earlier recordings will be missed.