There was a glorious moment during Syrian singer Omar Souleyman’s 2011 Glastonbury set. Having just opened to a crowd of sedate, sun-baked West Holts revellers with the trilling saz lines of ballad Saba, he gives one waft of his hand and commands the entire crowd into a dabke-fuelled frenzy.
His keyboard player starts hammering out electronic drums on the keys, while Souleyman wails deep-throated entreaties to his audience; it is a joyous encapsulation of his music and appeal.
Souleyman was on the cusp of mainstream recognition in 2011, releasing compilations Leh Jani and Haflat Gharbia – made up from his more than 500 bootleg recordings made during weddings and local concerts. In 2013, he released his Four Tet-produced debut LP, Wenu Wenu, marking him out as a dancefloor staple rather than an obscure novelty. Now, eight years and two more LPs along, not to mention a self-imposed exile to Turkey due to the ongoing civil war in Syria, and Souleyman can be found on almost every major festival lineup come summer.
His latest, Shlon, doesn’t much alter the dabke-techno formula established on Wenu Wenu. Each of the six tracks is billed as a “love song” and features poetry from his longtime collaborator Moussa Al Mardood, which Souleyman expresses in his throaty, powerful baritone, while fast-paced chromatic compositions come from keyboardist Hasan Alo and saz player Azad Salih. The kitsch, handclap-heavy percussion of the early records is replaced with a deeper, rumbling groove on the opening title track – not to mention a hint of Balearic synth on the bridge – while the major chord trance of Shi Tridin and the footwork-style layered percussion of Abou Zilif all sit comfortably within the club space.
Slower traditional number Mawwal is a highlight, featuring a cinematic opening courtesy of Salih’s noodling saz. Here Souleyman’s rich voice is given breathing space to sing lyrics of everlasting love in a softer, pleading register. On Mawwal, Souleyman shows his years of experience; he’s a consummate folk singer, as well as an entertainer.
Ultimately, Souleyman doesn’t need to alter his formula, which has served him for more than 500 records and still brings an often unexpected joy to its new listeners. Shlon is a short and sharp addition to his discography and proof that his passion for the music is undiminished.
Also out this month
Their album Tiris, originally released in 1994 on a small CD run for Oxfam Belgium, of all places, the Saharan folk of Sahrawi group El Wali gets a much-needed reissue. Their politically charged lyrics, demanding a national identity for their nomadic people, are backed by 80s synth-funk textures and propulsive, danceable rhythms.
Another reissue is the beautiful, star-gazing psychedelics of Issam Hajali’s Mouasalat Ila Jacad El Ard. Recorded in 1977, while in exile in Paris from his home country of Lebanon, Hajali’s soft vocals adorn the Minnie Riperton-referencing soul of the title track, while Nick Drake harmonies run throughout Khobs, creating a record that represents the heady cultural mix of the Parisian 70s.
In São Paolo, singer-songwriter Sessa channels the humid bossa nova of Antônio Carlos Jobim and Caetano Veloso on his debut album, Grandeza; his whispered vocals and clattering background percussion provide a soothing, subdued close to the year.