Album of the Week: Omar Souleyman – ‘Wenu Wenu’

22.10.13

When it was announced that Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) would be producing ‘Wenu Wenu’, the official debut album from Syrian musician and cult star Omar Souleyman, the big question was: would it work? While there’s no doubting Hebden’s credentials as a producer, Souleyman’s rough-hewn, lo-fi music, catalogued on Sublime Frequencies’ compilations and live albums, doesn’t immediately seem like it’d benefit from studio polish. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody more capable than Hebden to take the reins here. Hebden is hardly a rookie when it comes to producing live bands, and he has a virtuosic grasp of non-standard percussion from his work with late jazz drummer Steve Reid. Crucially, he knows how to work a party, something that’s important given Souleyman’s background as a wedding performer.

That’s really the most notable aspect of Hebden’s involvement on ‘Wenu Wenu’ – the album is a lot of fun. Treat it as a party album from start to finish and there’s remarkably little to dislike. Title track Wenu Wenu feels like thr summer smash that should’ve been. Nahy is almost like a b-boy breaks track, Da Funk made by an eccentric Arab rather than two pretentious French boys. Souleyman’s background in his native country is as a wedding performer, playing an electrified (and electrifying) style of traditional Syrian dabke music, his Turkish and Arabic lyrics speaking on issues of everyday life against broken electro rhythms. It’s spiky and scrappy, and very entertaining, with Souleyman having racked up over 500 albums of this music in his time (if you believe the PR, that is – most of these are live recordings from wedding sets given to newlywed couples as an aural souvenir of the day, rather than any committed, considered recordings). Hebden effectively streamlines Souleyman’s formula, emphasising the swing, groove and weight of the bass, clarifiying Souleyman’s vocal and adding additional machine funk that translates it from Syrian weddings to Western dancefloors.

With all that said, ‘Wenu Wenu’ is hardly a game-changer. Stylistically unique as it is, it’s also repetitive, something that isn’t helped by the general technofication of Souleyman’s sound – some of the more psychedelic elements of his earlier output seem watered down on ‘Wenu Wenu’ (there’s nothing as totally out there as I Will Make A Trap on here, for example). Nevertheless, ‘Wenu Wenu’ builds a case for Souleyman that reaches beyond the novelty of those compilations, and through its sheer exuberance and virtuosity, it’s almost impossible to dislike.

7/10

Ribbon Music released 'Wenu Wenu' on October 21st 2013.