Omar Souleyman – Bahdeni Nami (Album Review)

Over the course of the last nine years, Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman has carved a sufficient cult persona for himself, purely on the basis of his EDM-meets-Syrian café folk. For a man who comes from one of today’s most war torn and fragile nation states, his music is actually quite positive. It puts Souleyman in an empowering position which enables him to have just as much fun as it enables him to be the voice of the Syrian community. As his popularity spikes significantly (partly due to his explosive live shows and newfound cult status), many more people have taken to the 49 year old and collaborated on his records. New album Bahdeni Nami sees the likes of Four Tet, Gilles Peterson and Modeselektor all feature, making it his first record to stray away from solo work and incorporate that of others alongside it. Read on for a full album review.

Mawal Menzai’s opening saz melody and ‘trademark’ synth accompaniment (a combination which has become synonymous with Souleyman) kick off the record in a more restrained, subdued fashion compared to Omar’s previous output. Although you can’t understand a word he’s saying, his vocal tone sometimes gives the game away. Here, Souleyman sounds reflective and pensive as a bubbling instrumental brings the track to a quick ending. The title track, dabke anthem Bahdeni Nami, features Four Tet on co-production duties and sees the record suddenly jump back into full swing. Sounding rather identical to older track Wenu Wenu (also produced by Four Tet), it’s just made for a classic Syrian wedding scenario in which the groom is lifting his bride up in the air as guests form a dancing circle around the happy couple. The melodies are what make Souleyman’s music truly stand out, so it’s no surprise
that Four Tet (real name Kieran Hebden) has left his hands off them for the most part. Here, Souleyman sounds less amateurish and more polished as the melodies and tones intertwine seamlessly in and amongst a mix of traditional Syrian electro folk. This goes on for a total of eight minutes, with Gilles Peterson collaboration Tawwalt el Gheba going to similar lengths. Just like its predecessor, Tawwalt el Gheba is a no holds barred party starter capable of igniting venues the world over (trust us, we’ve seen it). It’s one of the best tracks on the record, its instrumental accompaniment perfectly demonstrating the skills which keyboardist Rizan Sa’id and saz player Khalid Youssef possess. However, the music still does drag on to such an extent that it almost becomes unlistenable due to the sheer intensity of things going on at once. If Souleyman’s songs were halved in length and still bathed in layer upon layer of instrumental accompaniment, then the music would probably be more listenable. That’s not to say that it’s bad, though; on the contrary – Souleyman is an expert at his craft.

Leil el Bareh’s sprawling saz melody and heavy emphasis on percussion form the stronghold on this track for the most part, with Souleyman’s vocals seemingly more of an accompaniment to the vibrant instrumentals. It’s the first of two Modeselektor collaborations on the record, and it also marks the halfway point on the album. As the track trudges to its end, it becomes very clear that Souleyman and co. are slightly running out of ideas for usable melodies. Darb El Hawa slightly deviates from the chosen path, opting for a slowed down opening which uses feedback noises and rustling to make way for an eerie melody and dark percussion. If this song were a visual piece, it would be a trek into the Syrian mountains at night, with nothing more than a goat to keep you company through the darkness. Album closer Enssa El Aatab brings the record to a vibrant ending, its jumpy percussion making for the perfect party starter as Modeselektor lays his hands all over the track for one more time. The melodies this time round are better suited to a dark, Western Europe nightclub as opposed to a Syrian wedding, with Souleyman’s raw vocal tone adding a sense of humanness in and amongst the monotonous dabke electronica. The album eventually comes to an upbeat close, some six songs and 45 minutes later. Although the average length of a song on the record falls between 6-8 minutes, you won’t really notice until you properly start listening. However dreary or monotonous it gets, you always keep listening for more in the hope that Souleyman is going to pull something spectacular out of the bag. Most of the time, he does; however, Bahdeni Nami is just a little bit too much of the same to keep it interesting for three full quarters of an hour. Jack Parker


Bahdeni Nami is out now via Monkeytown Records.