After an estimated 500 bootleg wedding recordings, three compilations, and a live album issued by Sublime Frequencies, Omar Souleyman's modern dabke is finally captured in a recording studio with Four Tet's Kieran Hebden producing. Of course, accompanying him is his not-so-secret weapon, keyboard wizard Rizan Sa'id. Wenu Wenu contains seven selections, clocking in at a little under 40 minutes. There are re-recordings of favorites, traditional songs, and a couple of new tunes. Souleyman's fluid, innovative dabke style walks its own loopy tightrope between baladi and shaabi styles and pushes the boundaries to create some new ones. His lyrics are sung poetry that can be understood by Turks, Kurds, and Iraqis, as well as Syrians; Westerners, not so much, but there are translations. Hebden does his best to capture all that is attractive about Souleyman's music but without the overblown distortion of those cassette recordings and overloaded PAs of wedding parties. He retains dabke's essentials; the poetry in these songs sometimes often comes from time immemorial; elsewhere it's modern. He understands that when words and rhythms are hypnotically paired, listeners become part of their unfolding. Sa'id's trademark keyboards are completely mind melting; his virtuoso pitchwheel acrobatics are manic; his textured rhythms link lyrics and melodies so precisely that even in odd time and key signatures they are compulsively irresistible. Hebden gives them plenty of room. Souleyman's voice claims his protagonist's timeless longing with authority; it is not a voice, it is the voice. It pleads and exhorts the listener to bear witness as it moans above the mix, possessed by it. Though Wenu Wenu contains more fidelity, sound separation, and balance, it retains much of the feel of his live offerings save for the live, rangey sound of the bouzouki. The throbbing title-track opener reflects Hebden's hearing with a massive four-on-the-floor beat, overdubbed backing chants, careening synth, and subtle female sighs, all of which reflect the devotion of the protagonist toward his beloved. "Khattaba" is a re-do of the 2006 hit, with multi-tracked samples of bouzouki, rebab, and strings; its dubwise sense of space is a fine expansion. In the improvisational ballad "Mawal Jamar," Hebden staggers piano chords atop the synth and loops. The gorgeous world-weariness in the grain of Souleyman's vocal rides the rhythms as Sa'id's winding, improvised solo seems to respond in affirmation. The latter man nearly steals the show several times. His mad, squiggly, pitch-bent zigzags on "Ya Yumma" are ecstatic; in the stomping closer, "Yagbuni," his emulation of reed instruments careen around the singer's voice and through Hebden's punched piano lines, loops, and a bass drop. Wenu Wenu cleans up Souleyman's music just enough to place it in an expanded musical and sonic context that creates a new frontier without sacrificing its power.
Wenu Wenu Review
by Thom Jurek