Interview: 'Syrian techno' star Omar Souleyman on new album Wenu Wenu
The prolific producer talks Syria, Western music and Four Tet's Kieran Hebden
His Syrian techno brings the sound of a high-energy Middle Eastern wedding knees-up to the West. Malcolm Jack catches up with Omar Souleyman
‘This is the best thing I have recorded in my career to date,’ beams Omar Souleyman about his new Kieran Hebden-produced album Wenu Wenu. Some may squirm a little at descriptions of it as his first ‘proper’ record, a term that seems to show little respect for the Syrian’s insanely prolific prior output of 500-plus albums since 1994, as sold at cassette stalls in Damascus, many of them recorded at weddings and parties. Souleyman used to perform around 20 shows a month in his homeland, before the combination of his music taking off abroad – thanks largely to the support of Seattle label Sublime Frequencies – and the Syrian civil war necessitated a relocation to Turkey, from where he speaks to The List via a translator.
But the man himself isn’t precious about declaring this first high-fidelity distillation of his slamming Shaabi street sound – ‘Syrian techno’, as it’s sometimes known – a new line in the sand for his career. ‘I’m very proud,’ he says. ‘It has indeed been a long-term ambition of mine to achieve this quality of sound on a record.’
Anyone concerned that transporting an artist born in rural north-eastern Syria and raised on Middle Eastern folk music to a recording studio in Brooklyn shouldn’t worry. The raw essence of his craft remains – principally a live experience, synonymous with both foot-stomping dabke circle dances at Syrian parties and legendary after-hours sets at hip Western festivals including All Tomorrow’s Parties and Primavera. Four Tet man Hebden has done a fine, hands-off job of capturing all of Souleyman’s unvarnished charm with just the right degree of clarity and control. Getting down to business within the opener’s first two seconds with a pumping beat and a face-melting Middle Eastern-flavoured synth solo (from Souleyman’s lightning-fingered collaborator Rizan Sa’id), then giving way to Souleyman’s impassioned Arabic chanting and crooning, it’s instantly the kind of thing that, experienced under the influence circa 2am at a festival, will inspire frenzied scenes of shit-losing.
Instantly recognisable with his thick black ’tache, trademark shades, keffiyeh headscarf and djella robe (no one could deny he has a strong look), Souleyman too has high praise for his producer. ‘Working with Kieran was a great joy,’ he says. ‘He is one of the greatest professionals I have had the pleasure of working with, as he is capable of doing pretty much everything – he is like a magician! It was a great experience, especially as I had had no idea who he was until we started working together.’ For all that superstars such as Björk and Damon Albarn have embraced Souleyman (he remixed for the former and collaborated with the latter), Western music doesn’t mean much to him. ‘I don’t really listen to any Western music, to be honest,’ he admits.
Does it surprise him that audiences in Europe and the US have become so excited by the Souleyman sound? ‘Of course it is a little surprising,’ he responds, ‘especially as they probably don’t understand the language. But yes, when I walk off stage and I can hear the crowd repeatedly shouting my name, it is clear to me they must be enjoying what I’m doing.’ Is taking Wenu Wenu to a peaceful Syria his next great ambition? ‘Of course I would love to be able to go back and perform my new album at home – nothing would make me prouder,’ he says. ‘At the moment everyone is waiting for a breakthrough in Geneva. I want things to get better for my beloved country.’
Omar Souleyman The Arches, Glasgow, Fri 9 Nov. Wenu Wenu is out on Ribbon Music on Mon 21 Oct.