Lovelorn dabke dance music without compromise
Joe Goggins
11:29 22nd November 2019

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It’s been twelve years since Omar Souleyman made the most unlikely of impacts in the Western music world with his Highway to Hassake compilation and, for the most part, he remains every bit as enigmatic as he was then.

He’s described in the promotional material for this second album on Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint as “Syrian wedding singer turned global dance icon” and as much as the latter aspect might be a touch generous, the fascinating thing about Souleyman is that he’s made such waves outside of his homeland with very little in the way of apparent compromise. His sound remains defined by the obscure dabke style that is synonymous with line dancing - and, therefore, weddings - in the Levant.

Souleyman cuts an unmoved, statuesque figure on stage and appears similarly unshakable off of it; as well as continuing to adhere closely to the genre that made his name, he continues to act as a staunch advocate for modern romance in his lyrics. Even as civil war has engulfed his country, from which he is now in exile, he’s continued to deal in universal themes, and seldom touches upon the unrest that has become synonymous with Syria in the Western news cycle.

2017’s To Syria, with Love probably provided the clearest evidence of that yet - it was an album chiefly defined by affairs of the heart, although it did appear to make subtle nods to the war if you looked closely enough, particularly on ‘Mawal’ and ‘Ya Boul Habari’.

After having split with longtime Korg wizard Riza Sa’id ahead of To Syria, with Love, Souleyman continues his collaboration with keyboardist and producer Hasan Alo here, to electrifying effect, and one that suggests that Souleyman is less beginning to take his cues from Western techno than break it to fit his own mould.

That’s especially clear on ‘Shi Tridin’, which shifts shape thrillingly in terms of its tempo. Elsewhere, there’s a broadening of his approach to the synthesiser; its chief purpose in the past on Souleyman’s records has been to approximate the woodwind instruments traditionally associated with dabke. But here, there’s the sense that they’re no longer being used just for colour and punctuation, but for the backbone of the tracks, too - ‘3tini 7obba’ and the swaggering title track both have undulating beds of synth running beneath everything else. The effect is a nuanced beefing-up of Souleyman’s signature sound.

He’s on typically lovelorn form throughout, courtesy of spontaneous work from lyricist Moussa Al Mardood; a preoccupation with mysterious women serves as the throughline. Still, there’s room for what feels like a venture outside of his usual sphere with ‘Mawwal’, a faithful interpretation of a traditional Syrian love song that is presented not at Souleyman’s usual breakneck pace, but instead in the deliberate, respectful manner that musical custom demands. That he finds room for it amongst the musical technicolour of Shlon is instructive; for all the collaborations with Western heavyweights like Four Tet, and for as many festival stages he takes by storm the world over, Souleyman continues to play avowedly by his own rules.

Shlon is out now via Mad Decent.

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