Omar Souleyman doesn’t have the musical background that you might expect from an international electronic artist. Hailing from the village Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, Souleyman started out in 1994 as a wedding singer, making music in the form of ‘dabke’ – Arabic folk dance originating and popular in the Levant countries.
Dedicated to his homeland, Souleyman’s latest album marks an interesting shift from his previously private relationship with Syria. Released on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, it’s a record which proves to be an insightful glance into his ability to bring aspects of Syrian pop music and culture to a Western audience.
The album is loud, energetic and brash at times. Co-written by Souleyman’s life long collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad, wild keyboard leads and hard beats make this more of a sound system album than easy listening. Featuring woozy polyrhythms, songs such as Ya Bnayya and Es Samra are highlights, whilst dramatic piano interludes in Aenta Lhabbeytak abruptly change the pace mid-album. These songs are lively and fun, and you can imagine them being played on a global platform - from festivals in England to nightclubs in Istanbul.
Yet it is the final two tracks which are the most interesting. Having moved to Turkey in 2011 (following the breakout of civil war in Syria), Souleyman presents feelings of mourning and despair in tracks Mawal and Chobi. Mawal marks a shift in the album’s trajectory towards heartache and desolation, with lyrics such as “Being away from home/ Is like having dust in the eyes/ I walk and my heart/ Feels dead among the dead.” Its down-tempo tone sits heavy with listeners. Likewise, closing track Chobi’s heavy percussion and prolonged synth notes cry out alongside his lyrics, “We are in exile and our nights are long” and “When will our alienation end/So we can go back home?” Depicting themes of isolation and mass exile, Souleyman’s understated vocals convey a distinct sense of heartbreak.
Featuring more electronic elements than Souleyman's previous records, To Syria, With Love is a punchy and at times demanding affair. Whilst this may not prove to be fully immersive throughout, the final tracks of this album make it a worthy listen. In featuring his homeland so heavily, Souleyman seems to want to remind his audience of the emotional turmoil that those who have fled from conflict cannot seem to - or perhaps do not want to - leave behind.
Words: Arnaz Marker