Hypnotic and delightful, good till the last drop, Souleyman's foundational music depends on repetition and primitive electronics that remind you that rhythm is really the mother of all inventions. Perhaps this release will convince the wider public that there is more in the Middle East than war.
On Wenu, Wenu, Souleyman and Sa'id take traditional Syrian folk music and run 1000 volts through it, creating an infectious style that has affectionately (and accurately) called 'Syrian Techno'. Listening to title track 'Wenu Wenu', you could almost imagine a joyous street party erupting as the pair perform - the handclap-driven percussion being evocative of a vibrant, dancing crowd, and the squiggly synth lines re-purposed from more traditional instrumentation. Indeed, Hebden's main duty as producer seems to have been to make sure the duo's live energy is preserved in these recordings, and he's succeeded admirably.
There's barely time to pause for breath after the mammoth seven minutes of the title track before 'Ya Yumma' kicks in, ramping up the album's already relentless pace even further as Sa'id outdoes himself with an outlandish synth solo. It's not until the record's mid-point that the pace drops a little, with 'Khattaba' featuring a smoother, more sultry feel and some dramatic string flourishes, as well as the record's only snatches of English - listen carefully and you can hear Souleyman namedrop Paris and London (perhaps as exotic destinations to transport his beloved to?).
Fortunately, language doesn't really seem to be a barrier here - given Souleyman's background, it'd would be safe to assume that these are all songs about love, passion and dedication, even if you don't have any sort of translation available. Indeed, Souleyman's positivity is granted additional poignancy given recent events in Syria - his music reminding us of the human side to these distant conflicts. Actually understanding the words isn't really necessary as long as you appreciate the intent behind them - for example, reading the translated lyrics in the video for 'Wenu Wenu' is useful to provide context, but trying to apply them directly to the song would simply diminish the effect. Similarly, the press release accompanying the album states that 'Mawal Jamar' is about being willing to walk over hot coals for the one you love, which provides more than enough meaning to the song's aching, impassioned vocals.
However, in Wenu Wenu the results are both surprising and enormously respectful. While its association to Four Tet is obviously going to be pushed rabidly by Western press, PR and sales, this record is entirely about the original artists. Four Tet’s production role seems to mean exactly that – studio production – and Sa’id is happily in full force alongside Souleyman, their sound now efficiently cleaned up and boosted. Four Tet carefully mixes and maximises their raucous output to levels of finesse that can easily match the polished pop from Syria’s more expensive studios, while remaining very genuine to the original music.
It’s huge fun and sounds just as big. Souleyman’s voice is as rough, earnest and wonderfully relatable as ever, a normal yet extraordinary man belting it out for all his worth. Sa’id’s instrumentals are the familiar mix of inspiring drum machine and doumbek flurries, beloved Middle Eastern keyboard staples – Muzak piano, Mediterranean parallel strings, synth brass stabs – and writhing streams of nasal, portamento leads, all effortlessly ranging from 89 to 140 bpm. Excellent business as usual then.
If Four Tet has had any input – and he may well have done – it is so fully integrated into Sa’id’s dabke style as to be unrecognisable. You could maybe point to some details: the flute samples in ‘Nahy’ may be Four Tet’s; ‘Warni Warni’’s small, acerbic zaps give an extra acid tinge; the loping cycles during the finale of ‘Yagbuni’ and the pumped up last third of ‘Wenu Wenu’ could both point towards house influence. But ultimately it’s a pointless exercise, as listening to any past Souleyman material, especially that of higher quality, will showcase all kinds of moments such as these.
It’s kind of nice to think that we’re past the point where something needs to be patronisingly sold as exotic “world music” and is instead picked up because people are blown away with the sounds – as has happened with the insanely funky keyboard-playing and hectic electronic folk grooves of Omar Souleyman’s Syrian wedding music. Given extra boost and crispness by the supportive production of Kieran ‘Four Tet’ Hebden, those grooves sound better than ever here. Mind you, it’s hard not to think of context too, and the horrors of Souleyman’s home country throw extra layers of sadness and hope into the mix. But whatever you read into it, this is powerful, living dance music, above all else.