Prolific. That’s a good way to describe Omar Souleyman. After all, how many artists have released over 550 albums? However, not all that glitters is gold. Many of these albums are recordings of Omar singing at weddings. They’re sold at kiosks in Omar’s native Syria. That’s where his nickname The Wedding Singer comes from. Despite Omar’s prolificacy and nearly twenty years in the music industry, he’s still hadn’t released a studio album. That was until recently, when Omar Souleyman released Wenu Wenu on Ribbon music. 

Somewhat belatedly, Wenu Wenu was released just as Omar’s profile was rising. He’d come a long way from Ras Al Ain, in northeastern Syria, where Omar was born and brought up. Life wasn’t easy back home. What with the conflict, drought and stifling heat. Temperatures regularly rise to over 130 in Ras Al Ain. It was in this blistering heat that Omar Souleyman made his musical debut.

Omar was born in 1968, and when he was just seven years old, he sang at his first wedding. The Wedding Singer was born. Soon, he was performing almost daily with his band, which included Rizan Sa’id. Then as technology improved, Omar incorporated a Korg synth into his band. This was able to replicate the traditional Dabke band. Omar continued to play at weddings right up until 2000. He was the go-to-guy for anyone looking for a Dabke band.

With their mesmeric, joyous, stomping beat, dabke music is infectious and truly irresistible. Listen to a tape of his band live, and you’ll realize why he’s a hero to fellow Syrians. Despite this, he continued to work as a laborer. However, cassettes of his band were sold at kiosks throughout northeaster Syria. Then as the new millennia unfolded, Omar’s popularity grew.

Gradually, Omar Souleyman’s music found the wider audience it so richly deserved. From being just a Syrian phenomenon. Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies, a label that releases an eclectic selection of folk, pop and urban music. Sublime Frequencies released Highway To Hassake (Folk and Pop Sounds Of Syria) in 2007. This was the first in the Folk and Pop Sounds Of Syria series. Dabke 2020 followed in 2009, with Jazeera Nights released in 2010. By then, Omar Souleyman’s profile was in the ascendancy. He was playing at high profile events in America. This was down to Omar hooking up with Sublime Frequencies. Soon, the name Omar Souleyman was known much further afield.

Now Omar Souleyman was the first Syrian singer to enjoy commercial success and critical acclaim in America, his reputation spread to Europe. He released Leh Jani in 2011, for the Sham Palace label. His popularity was soaring. The usual hipsters and bandwagon jumpers were suddenly “fans” of his music. Omar was appearing at some of the biggest festivals in Europe and America, including Glastonbury in 2011. Big name artists wanted to work with him. So did Bjork and Gorillaz. DJs were remixing his music, making it dance-floor friendly. The only thing Omar still had to do, was release a studio album. This he did recently.

Wenu Wenu features just seven songs which were written by Omar Souleyman. He and Rizan Sa’id play on Wenu Wenu, which was recorded at Studio G, New York. Producing Wenu Wenu was Kieran Hedben. Once Wenu Wenu was finished, it was released on Ribbon Music. So after a lifetime of releasing live albums Omar Souleyman somewhat belatedly, released his debut studio Wenu Wenu. Was it worth the wait? That’s what I’ll tell you.

Opening Wenu Wenu is the pulsating title-track which in English translates as Where Is She. Seamlessly, Western and Arabic music melts into one. Having said that, there’s a contemporary sound to the track. It’s a fusion of traditional Arabic and dance music. As the song bursts into life, you’re hooked. You’re swept along, atop the thunderous, pounding beats. Swathes of strings carry you above the myriad of Arabian and Western instruments. There’s what sounds like an arghul and traditional Arabian drums plus keyboards and handclaps. They provide a mesmeric backdrop for Omar’s heartbroken, distraught vocal, as he brings to life the needless violence in the lyrics. 

There’s no drop in tempo on Ya Summa or Oh Mother. Describing it as infectiously  catchy and irresistible is an understatement. Resistance is impossible. Best just to submit to the track’s considerable charms. Musical genres are fused over four minutes. Elements of avant-garde, experimental, Arabic, dance, funk and soul are thrown into Omar’s melting pop. As he delivers an impassioned vocal, drums pound, providing the heartbeat, Omar and Rizan Sa’id give virtuoso performances. All manner of traditional instruments provide a delicious, dance-floor friendly backdrop. The result is no ordinary Dabke band, but one infused with the spirit of Jimi Hendrix .

Nahy which translates as My Precious, literally explodes into life. It’s a love song, where Omar lays bare his soul. His vocal is heartfelt and emotive. Meanwhile a combination of thunderous drums combine with flutes, arghul and handclaps. A potent combination, they’re the perfect foil to Omar’s soulful, impassioned vocal. 

Straight away, it’s obvious Khattaba or Promise Of Marriage is something special. Stabs of keyboards and bursts of drums combine before an atmospheric, evocative and Arabian sounding arrangement unfolds. Swathes of sweeping strings add to the drama. Omar’s rasping, worldweary vocal is full of emotion and joy. His vocal drifts in and out of the arrangement. You’re left mesmerised and spellbound by what’s one of the highlights of Wenu Wenu.

Warni Warni (Come To Me) has a thoughtful, pensive sound. Very briefly, there’s a drum ‘n’ bass influence. Then the arrangement explodes. At breakneck speed, guitars and thundering, galloping drums drive the arrangement along. Omar vocal is a needy, heartfelt plea. As his vocal drops out, he and Rizan Sa’id push musical boundaries. They take this ancient, sacred music and reinvent it. Adding a contemporary twist, a seven minute, genre-melting, dramatic Magnus Opus unfolds. It demonstrates Omar Souleyman at his best, innovating and reinventing traditional Syrian music.

Dramatic and emotive describes Mawal Jamar (Mawal). It’s the stabs of keyboards and swathes of strings, not forgetting Omar’s vocal. He’s almost distraught and grief-stricken. Deeply moving, it’s heart-wrenching. Especially with lyrics that translate as: “he did not bury me.” Emotion, sadness and frustration fill his voice, while the arrangement frames his vocal. It’s the backdrop for this cathartic outpouring of emotion and anguish.

Yagbuni (Sweet Girl) closes Wenu Wenu. From the opening bars, you’re translated to Syria, Omar’s homeland. Then as the sound unfolds, it takes on a more contemporary sound. It’s a fusion Western and Arabic music. They prove a potent partnership. As the arrangement grows in power and drama, it almost becomes frenzied. Not quite though. It’s setting the scene for Omar’s seductive, alluring vocal. Soulful, sincere and seductive, it’s accompanied by an arrangement that’s a dramatic fusion of the music of two continents.

Wenu Wenu, Omar Souleyman’s debut album is long overdue, but has been well worth the wait. Granted he’s released over 550 live albums. Most of them were recorded when Omar sung at weddings in his native Syria. That’s how he acquired the nickname The Wedding Singer. He’s now forty-five and has gained recognition much further afield. 

From America, Europe and Britain, belatedly, people are discovering one of Syrian music’s best kept secrets. It’s better late than never. Now some of the biggest artists  in music are wanting to work with Omar Souleyman. At last his talent has been recognized. So has Omar’s ability to create genre-melting music. That’s the case on Wenu Wenu, Omar’s recently released debut album on Ribbon Music. Wenu Wenu sees Omar fuse everything from Arabic, dance, electronic, folk, funk and soul. It’s combined by producer Kieran Hedben on Wenu Wenu.

When anyone listens to Omar Souleyman’s debut album Wenu Wenu, they can’t help but be captivated by his voice. As he sings in Arabic, his rasping vocal veers beteen worldweary, lovelorn, heartfelt and heartbroken. Tales of love and love gone wrong are familiar themes for Omar. A man of few words, Omar takes the music of Syria’s past and reinvents it. The result is Wenu Wenu, a fusion of Arabian and Western music from Omar Souleyman, the one time Wedding Singer who now looks like being a worldwide star and belatedly enjoying commercial success and critical acclaim. Standout Tracks: Ya Yumma, Nahy, Khattaba and Yagbuni.


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