Available on: Ribbon LP
Learning that the new album from Omar Souleyman, Wenu Wenu, was to be produced by the increasingly ubiquitous Four Tet gave the cynic in me a jolt.
This was because when you listen to Omar Souleyman you are really listening to collaboration between him and Rizan Sa’id, his own producer and keyboardist. As the man credited with updating Syria’s dabke music into the wild variation it is today, Sa’id is arguably the reason why Souleyman has shot to global attention, just as much as his barking voice. The prospect that Sa’id’s sound may end up as diluted samples for some kind of emotional, UK dance vanity project was a depressing one.
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.
When it comes to passing judgement, Wenu Wenu obviously has the Western music press’ lack of familiarity with dabke on its side. But, as Andy Morgan put it so well in his feature a few years ago, Western audiences seem to be connecting with Souleyman on a universal level anyway; there’s something inescapably punk and techno about his and Sa’id’s sound, and that’s exciting wherever you are. Wenu Wenu is no different, and while some people may prefer the lower fidelity grit of their cassette releases, Four Tet has done a solid job in making Syria’s underdogs a heavyweight force.