Omar Souleyman and ‘Shlon (how)’ to have fun
Prior to this week, I had no idea who Omar Souleyman was. I found his name scrolling through Metacritic and thought it sounded like one out of my high school yearbooks or my mom’s soap operas (I’m Arab). I didn’t assume many Arab musicians were very popular in the West, much less Arabic music. But that’s specifically the case for Souleyman. Starting as a Syrian wedding performer in 1994, he has since amassed well over 500 albums over the course of his career. These records are a mix of live and studio recordings that gained traction across Northeastern Syria, and his stylings draw from a popular village folk music of the Levant called dabke, with a slight EDM-techno bend. He became a global force following his 2007 release Highway to Hissake (Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria) under American record label Sublime Frequencies. His reach has only expanded from there as he made waves at the 2011 Glastonbury Music Festival and collaborated with western artists from Bjork to Gorillaz. He has now returned to the scene with the release of Shlon.
To preface, I will not carry this review on as Pitchfork so pretentiously did with their review of 2017’s To Syria, With Love, and credit his success as the result of any westernization of his work. Nor will I so much as suggest that “his ignorance of dabke is a prerequisite for his success,” as DJ Rupture did in his 2016 novel “Uproot.” Just as American and European artists found their fascination in the Japanese invention of synth-pop, the same goes for Arabs in the Middle East. Rather, I will consider Souleyman’s work as I would any other work of dabke.
Just as much as it is a genre of music, dabke is a form of dance. The two work to reinforce one another, almost inextricable in their pairing; there is no point to dabke music if you can’t dance to it. This idea radiates throughout Shlon. Clocking in with six songs in 35 minutes, the album shouldn’t feel as long as it does. The effect is a result of placing the music and instruments at the very center of a song. The album embodies the standard maqam Bayātī form with elaborate, layered introductions that can last over a minute long. The oud, mijwiz, tablah, daff and arghul all cascade melodiously over the ambient synths that linger beneath, receding ever so seamlessly in succession between one another. This is alongside the contributions of other Syrian contemporaries, namely Hassan Alo on keyboard and Azad Salih on saz.
Shlon takes these ritual elements of dabke up a notch by way of unbridled delight and ecstasy. Its title translates literally to “what color,” or more colloquially as “how,” as the overarching theme of the album is love and how it works. Souleyman takes dabke and warps it into his own brand, every song loud, energetic and punchy. It never feels contrived or aggressive, and Souleyman leaves ample room for more sparse moments. Most notably there is Mawwal, with its subtle, all-encompassing synth glowing throughout the entire track. Oud and mijwiz alternate with one flowing into the other to sustain the song’s energy throughout Souleyman’s singing until a daf solo that ends the song on a comforting note. Alternatively, its successor “Abou Zilif” radiates pure jubilance and enthusiasm, a pounding tablah and sharp arghul notes animating every moment.
Souleyman croons short, flowery proclamations of love throughout every track over subtle handclaps that beg us to clap and groove along. These lyrics comprise a love poem written by Moussa Al Mardood in one sitting during a recording session. Souleyman’s gruff, full recitation of the poem pairs well with the complex mesh of synth and the fast-paced dabke and baladi on each track. This only makes sense with dabke’s true niche at weddings and other celebrations of love. Unfortunately, these lyrics do not translate well into English: “There are no eyebrows like hers / They are drawn like swords” can only really keep its true glamour in Arabic.
Omar Souleyman strikes gold in combining the atmosphere and energy of an Arab wedding with the radiance of synthpop. By playing at the strengths of both genres, he balances them over one another to give each a chance to shine. Every moment of Shlon sparkles in awe and anticipation with a celebration and party in mind. This extends to rank Souleyman not only as a dynamic wedding singer, but a deft producer who can wield two worlds of music at once.