The dance album of 2013 – according to its admittedly slightly biased producer Kieran Hebden – isn’t Jon Hopkins’ Immunity or Disclosure’s Settle. It’s a collection of Middle Eastern folk pop by a 47-year-old Syrian who sings in Arabic and Kurdish and made his name on the local wedding circuit.
Omar Souleyman started performing back in 1994, electrifying and accelerating traditional Syrian dabke music (dabke being the arm-linking, leg-swinging line-dance that forms at celebrations from Lebanon to Iraq). Joined two years later by Korg synthesizer whiz and producer Rizan Sa’id, he became something of a musical legend locally, dominating the lines of tape stalls that blare out their wares like rival sound systems.
That was how Seattle-based global obscurities label Sublime Frequencies came across him, and via their rough-and-ready compilations his synth-and-saz (long-necked lute) sound found Western ears. Now he’s big with the indie crowd, with a remix credit for Björk (who dubbed him ‘Syrian techno’ – needless to say, it stuck) and festival slots from Primevera to Pitchfork (when he can get the right visa). There’s both a fervent heat and a remote cool to his live presence: a moustachioed gent in tunic, kaffiyeh, leather jacket and aviator shades, he has his lyrics (often romantic melodramas) whispered sternly into his ear mid-performance by a suited poet with the discreet gravity of a political aide.
If you count the bootleg cassettes recorded at weddings, Souleyman has some 500 records to his name, but Wenu Wenu, produced by Hebden (aka electronic adventurer Four Tet) is his first studio album. It’s addictive stuff: a pumping, high-BPM, hard-edged, microtonal folk-rave that makes a virtue of incessance over variety, while picking out individual instruments with exciting clarity. Souleyman’s rasping voice is framed and deepened by reverb. Sa’id (at the risk of sounding dangerously orientalist) is more snake charmer than keyboard player, drawing out endlessly twisting and wriggling synth lines that strike out from the melody with a life of their own.