“The kiss from your lips melted mine … You dazzled me and I am so much in love with you…”
The singer Omar Souleyman is typically stony-faced as he lip-syncs these words – in Arabic – in the promo video for Behdeni Nami, the ebullient title track from his forthcoming album.
Wearing shades and a red-and-white ghutra, he spends the video smoking as he drives the highways of eastern Turkey, not far from the border of his homeland, Syria, from which he fled several years ago as the country’s uprising turned into civil war.
The eight-minute-long song is produced by the British experimental producer Four Tet, who also oversaw production on Souleyman's 2013 album Wenu Wenu. Like that record, Bahdeni Nami is mostly made up of the kind of thumping, loping beat you might hear at a garage club, augmented by a complicated melody, full of half-tones, played on traditional Arabic instruments and synthesisers. There are a couple of ballads that make Souleyman's voice their focus, but the more upbeat tracks are full of rollicking solos on keyboard and saz (a kind of oud), with vocals that lurch in and out, hollered hoarsely as though addressing a woman walking out the door. Lyrics have been contributed by the poet Ahmad Alsamer, a long-time collaborator of Souleyman's, and love is the dominant theme.
That’s unsurprising, once you know the story about how the 49-year-old father of nine made the journey from working as a labourer in Ras Al Ain, in Syria’s north-east, to becoming a global pop phenomenon who has remixed Björk tracks, performed at a Nobel Peace Prize concert, and toured the world.
In the mid-1990s, Souleyman began singing at weddings and other festivities close to home, becoming so popular he had a waiting list of clients. As is the norm for “dabke” performers, who play the traditional party music that’s accompanied by a mass foot-stomping line dance in parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, he would give recordings of his long, high-energy sets to the couples who hired him.
Tapes of hundreds of these live sets, as well as locally produced studio albums, were also distributed at cassette stalls in Syria, and when the Californian musician and record collector Mark Gergis started visiting the country in 1997, he began collecting them, drawn to their rawness and passion. He sought Souleyman out a few years later, and obtained permission to release a compilation album, Highway to Hassake, on the US world-music indie label Sublime Frequencies. While Souleyman is unknown in Syria's big cities, he ended up becoming a star abroad: a successful UK tour in 2009 led to his album with Four Tet (real name Kieran Hebden) and those high-profile gigs and collaborations.
Wenu Wenu was Souleyman's first studio album made outside Syria, and although its sound is cleaner than the live records, with the synth melodies and vocals easier to distinguish, the jittery, clattering energy of those original recordings is preserved. Hebden is best known for a stripped-back style known as folktronica, but he mostly kept his own aesthetic out of the mix.
This new album was recorded in Istanbul, produced by the eclectic Berlin duo Modeselektor and released on that group’s own label, Monkeytown. This time, there’s more hybridisation on show, with a gaggle of guest producers from around Europe stirring some of their own flavour into four of the six tracks, as well as a remix of the title track by the Dutch electro wizard Legowelt, which ends the album.
Things start in a traditional manner, with a mournful mawal – a typical Arabic introductory song – that features a virtuosi saz solo by another long-time collaborator, Khaled Youssef, over a jingling, synthesised rhythm hook. When Souleyman’s voice kicks in, it crackles with sadness and longing, tracing baroque melodic patterns. Once that’s dealt with, in a brisk two-and-a-half minutes, the party starts, with banging electronic beats filling out the sound.
The beefiest track, which you could most readily imagine in a crowded club, is Tawwalt El Gheba, produced by the British soul and house DJ Gilles Peterson; there's a lilt to the beat that could come from a sped-up reggaeton hit.
Legowelt's Bahdeni Nami remix is even more out there, with a squelchy dubstep beat, shuffling bass, and bleeps and whooshes careening around reverb-heavy vocals. It's an intriguing blend that sounds neither eastern nor western – more like a message beamed down from space, recorded in the middle of a laser-gun war.
Four Tet’s eight-minute version of that track – the one released as a video to promote the album – is the album’s infectiously celebratory highlight. It’s as blindingly fast, busy and piercing as a neon-lit city street, without too many production flourishes to distract from what Souleyman and his musicians are doing. Rizan Said, on keyboard, alternates between echoing the vocal melody and launching off into his own fast and frenzied odyssey. The drumbeat sounds almost tropical, handclaps and exclamatory shouts heighten the festive feel, and Souleyman’s voice comes close to transcending his usual gruffness and approaching joy.
Critics have pointed out that dabke music is hardly seen as the height of sophistication within the Levant: it’s rural barn-dance music that is designed to be repetitive, with songs stretched out for half an hour each: a backdrop to fun, rather than art to be pondered.
Many of the fans who’ll be catching Souleyman live this summer in cities like Los Angeles, London and Berlin won’t have a tight grasp on this context, motivated mostly by a desire to hear music that sounds exotically foreign to their ears. This impulse has been called out as shallow and orientalising, which is fair, but it doesn’t capture the full extent of Souleyman’s appeal.
Tracks like Bahdenu Nami are a reminder that from hip-hop to gospel to bluegrass and folk, music rooted in small communities has always cross-pollinated with other genres and made the jump from streets and churches and front porches to clubs and concert halls.
There’s plenty that’s universal about music intended to make us move, and you don’t need to understand Arabic or brush up on your regional musical history to hear this album and feel compelled to dance.
Jess Holland is a regular contributor to The National.