Willie Reviews Omar Souleyman’s “Shlon”

Willie Reviews Omar Souleyman’s “Shlon”

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Syrian wedding-singer turned techno-star Omar Souleyman knows what works and he’s sticking to it. His new record, Shlon, returns to his trademark danceable sound the West has grown to love.

What’s happening behind Omar Souleyman’s shades? He’s seen wearing them in every last photo, and if his goal were to become literally synonymous with a loud moustache and sunglasses, he’s done it. I now wonder, are his eyes wide open or are they comfortably closed? Does he sometimes feel more like the glasses than his own body? Do those eyes glimmer in a secret smile, unnoticed by his adoring masses? I hope so. Seemingly born a larger-than-life figure and holding this course forever, Souleyman made a name for himself beyond world music circles with his 2013 release Wenu Wenu. This Four Tet-produced album was received ecstatically yet often spoken of as a novelty. After all, his sound is completely and utterly baffling to Western audiences because not very much like it reaches us. With that album, he successfully flipped from being a living historical object on world music label Sublime Frequencies to an active club deity on first Domino and now Mad Decent. His most recent album, Shlon, doesn’t need to stray far from what works, and thankfully, it doesn’t.

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But why does Souleyman’s sound capture us so? The correct answer is likely the simplest: it’s dance music, and people like to dance. Despite the unfamiliar scales, language, and form, it’s still dance music. More specifically, it’s fresh dance music that those outside the Levant don’t often get a chance to dance to. It embraces its status as accompaniment to dabke, a traditional form of group dance for special occasions, but still can blow you away with its nuts and bolts. The usual instrumental setup is a pecked-out synthesizer drum with breaks for blazing fast string fills, all brought together by hand claps. And when Souleyman sings, almost always about love in all its forms, he guides the instruments as much as they guide him. This call and response, heard most easily on the slow introduction to “Mawwal,” gives his deep, throaty voice the life of the nimble strings while keeping its authoritative narrative power. Souleyman rules over the tracks, painting out emotional depth even to those (many) of us who don’t understand the words.

And yet in listening to the busy tracks and trying to orient myself, I end up digging for the minutiae of structure to give a more ready insight into what’s going on. I think it’s necessary to have at least a basic understanding of the maqam, the Arabic modal system. Built around scales that Western music theory would represent as microtones, these modes include something like a quarter-tone, but which is better understood as an entirely different pattern of intonation. The many different varieties of maqam define not only scales but melodic development and a central core, or nucleus of the category. That final notion should sound familiar after listening to Souleyman, who focuses on clusters of notes to really hammer out what mood each song is in. Practically shaking with intensity, he’ll stab at a note and hear it come back in the form of a synth of a string. A popular mood for dabke is Maqam Bayati, which sounds like a minor scale with a lowered second note. I can’t be sure that’s what he’s following in his songs, but it sounds similar to me. In any case, you’ll hear exciting new intervals! Throughout much of “3tini 7obba,” he remains low, within the four-note nucleus. The instruments bounce back and forth in the same set of confines, proving rich and moving precisely because of their strict emotional bounds.

Omar Souleyman - Layle (Official Full Stream)

If you’re like me and you sat down to drink tea while listening to the record, you’re bound to get a little lost in the music’s complexities. Because it’s excellent dance music, you’d be hard-pressed to hold yourself together in an unfrenzied situation. Almost 100% of the time, the Souleyman is full force. We should hope for no less, but it speaks to his commitment to the genre. And if the quick, constant movement is the primary attractor of Souleyman’s music, the lyrical form is the heart beneath it that keeps you listening. Last week I was listening to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a folk singer and archivist of Appalachian music, and I kept fixating on the feeling of the return to the chorus as an intimate, nearly religious experience. In Lunsford’s passed down ballads, the chorus returns like a subtle wave, washing over the scary inconsistencies of each verse. The same holds true with Souleyman’s love songs. They delay the reward of the chorus, but at the same time, the refrain never leaves your mind. On “Layle,” perhaps the easiest to sing along to, he hits the refrain with the same focus as he hits the core notes. The word “layle” sticks out, inviting and enticing further with every mention. Even with this immediate resolution, the emotion comes across as real and brutal, reliably crushing him each time. I think there’s a tear hiding behind his glasses.

Score: Dancing with everyone in the world’s biggest and only ballroom.

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