Review: Omar Souleyman - Wenu Wenu

Wenu Wenu doesn’t mess around.
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Wenu Wenu doesn’t mess around.
Omar Souleyman Wenu Wenu

opinion byJESSE NEE-VOGELMAN

Legend has it that Souleyman got his start as a wedding singer, and rose to fame as rival bazar speaker salesman blasted bootlegged wedding tapes out of their wares. Legends cling to Souleyman; he’s the type of guy, sightings of whom will be reported for decades after his death. It’s not only his music’s ability to recall a place that is, to many of us, still mysterious and distant, but more how it slithers melodies into our head that stay there and breed like snakes.

Wenu Wenu doesn’t mess around. From moment one, Souleyman’s on his soapbox, preaching dance and shouting, we’re not in Kansas anymore, baby. Hell, we’re not even in Brooklyn. Souleyman’s producer and synth charmer, Rizan Sa’id, hits us immediately with a tangled, slithering EDM theme straight from traditional Arabic ouds and my childhood, Disney-stained dreams of the Middle East. It’s crazy, it’s cool, it’s confusing, and outside of my Palestinian friend’s family Christmas parties, I haven’t heard much that sounds like it.

This is both the zenith and nadir of Souleyman’s appeal. “Syrian folk-EDM, dance-pop.” It’s so new, as to go almost beyond refreshing and into disorienting. Part of it’s the melodies themselves: traditional Arabic chromatic scales contain twice as many notes as our limited Western systems, weaned on the likes of The Well-Tempered Clavier. On a very real level, Souleyman and Sa’id are conjuring unfamiliar musical space, notes between notes, half-sharps, and slippery synth licks like a frightening caress.

For much of the album, it’s these keyboard tricks that grab our attention, and each song comes ready-made with a new high-powered solo. However, while the album itself bleeds originality, the solos themselves are almost interchangeable, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On a record so viscerally alien, Souleyman takes it upon himself to beat familiarity into our heads, favoring unrelenting energy over variety.

It’s not surprising that Souleyman played weddings. His music evolved from dabke, a traditional celebratory line dance. It’s got a groove, but it’s not particularly sensual. It makes you want move with people, but not necessarily rub on them. Wenu Wenu is full of group thrillers like that. “Warni Warni” touts the best synth solo on the album, which shreds out of nowhere to take over the song. This one especially moves, and coming into Souleyman’s scream “hey, hey, hey!” you know he wants you to get down and party.

Still, it’s Souleyman’s vocals that ground the music, and makes the album both so penetratingly exciting and foreign. EDM producers have been mining heady Middle Eastern beats for decades, gaining followings in bars that pine after mystery and hookah smoke—god, is even my figurative language marked by xenocentric fetishism?—but in Souleyman’s quick, harsh voice we find something new. The very texture of Souleyman’s Arabic and Kurdish separates the album from its garden-variety ilk. It’s rough in unexpected places, with irregular vowel patterns, and harsh deep-throated calls wrapped between smooth linguistic trills that echo the serpentine dance of the synth.

To whet our “album-event” appetites, Souleyman released and English-subtitled teaser for “Wenu Wenu,” and, I’ll be honest, I had no idea what this jam was about:

“The one who I loved, where is she? And with her delicate mouth, who kills with her beautiful eyes.”

I guess, no matter where we come from, we sing about love. And that’s actually kind of nice, when you think about it. A lot fast paced EDM abandons real emotion in favor of shaking our bodies ‘till it hurts. “Wenu Wenu” says something little different: let’s shake because it hurts, let’s get into a frenzy because love is terrible. I wish I had known that. Maybe, as a responsible audience member, it’s my job to learn Arabic.

The sad thing is, we always lose something in translation. Despite myself, I can’t stop thinking of this music as some sort of other. Like I’m on the outside looking in, trying to find the line between danceability, originality, and geographic kitsch. While Wenu Wenu certainly benefits from multiple listens, on my first run through only a few moments transcended novelty into actual music: the great chanting breakdown about 3 minutes in “Wenu Wenu” or the absolutely bonkers synth solo halfway through “Ya Yuma.”

Wenu Wenu still feels very alien to me, but the way midnight street “shwarma” feels alien. It’s delicious and filling and even though I have no idea where they got that meat, I’m gonna put it in my body. [B]