Omar Souleyman


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Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman scored his first hit with Jani in his native land in 1996. In 2004, Khataba cemented his reputation as an innovator in the trans-Arab world. Some 500 live albums released on cassette appeared between those two outings. In 2007, Highway to Hassake (on Sublime Frequencies) introduced Souleyman's new wave dabke music to the West. Dabke is wedding and dance party music from Syria. Souleyman updated the sound with the aid of multi-instrumentalist and pitch-wheel keyboardist Rizan Sa'id and electric saz player Ali Shaker. Souleyman was forced into exile in 2011 at the dawn of the Syrian civil war. That summer, his thunderous performance at England's Glastonbury Open Air Festival made him an internationally renowned dance music star, and the show was documented on Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts. Souleyman teamed with Kieran Hebden for 2013's studio-recorded Wenu Wenu and its follow-up, Bahdeni Nami. The latter two albums, perhaps due to being recorded in proper studios rather than live, are somewhat undercharged, almost staid, though they are lovely. His band was beginning to fragment from all the traveling, and Souleyman sought new inspiration in exile. He found it with a new band on 2017's To Syria, With Love, his debut for Diplo's Mad Decent label.

The crew -- keyboardist Hasan Alo, electric saz player Azad Salih, lyricist Moussa Al Mardood, and producer/manager Mina Tosti -- all return for Shlon. Cut in an English studio, this set recalls -- in much better fidelity -- the wooly freedom and raucous electronic rawness of the early Souleyman recordings. Six tracks deep and 35-minutes long, this band roars through six techno-meets-dabke tracks of "romance and love to the world." Alo's arrangements are anchored in a high-speed fusion of Kurdish and Syrian dabke, balladi, and Iraqui styles, shot through with spiky, driving Euro techno beats, pitch-shifted samples, and fleet, stabbing electric saz. Souleyman is in excellent voice, his grainy baritone on the title-track opener rises above the rhythm, chanting and singing Al Mardood's poetic lyrics (written entirely at the first recording session) rooted in centuries-old traditions. "Shri Tridin" gallops along with a funky backbeat, punchy hand percussion, deep chanted male chorus, and dueling saz and synth atop a constant chorus of handclaps. Things slow down on the mournful ballad "Mawwal" with the pitch-shifted synth sounding like a sad viola atop wafting drone saz chords before hand drumming slips in, transforming the song into a beautifully haunted Kurdish blues. "Abou Zilif" is careening disco in the Arabic scale; it alternates with layers of minor-key strings in call-and-response with Souleyman's passionate singing. The single "Layle" closes the set in charging, stomping, full-blown Arabic disco, complete with the sampled sounds of the ney, flute, reeds, saz, and banks of loops, reverb, and breaks. Shlon is the album where Souleyman reveals his comfort with his new band, who have, after all, traveled tens of thousands of miles together. He also returns to the incendiary approach of his early albums, worrying not so much about hip textures and beats as delivering these songs as soulfully and energetically as possible.

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