It’s been six long years since Omar Souleyman, one of the world’s best-loved Arabic singers, last saw his native Syria. The high-voltage dabke dance numbers and sad ballads on his electrifying forthcoming album To Syria With Love are drenched in longing that transcends any linguistic limitations. Even if you don’t speak Arabic, you can relate to the pain and depth of feeling in his gritty baritone. He’s playing the Poisson Rouge on May 11 at 9ish, a World Music Institute show; advance tix are $30 and still available as of today.
On the new album, Hasan Alo provides a dynamic electroacoustic backdrop behind Souleyman’s vocals, with lyrics co-written with longtime collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad. Most of the songs clock in at a hefty six minutes or more. The opening track, Ya Boul Habari (rough translation: Girl with the Pretty Hijab) is a catchy dancefloor stomp awash in fiercely warping, darkly chromatic synth lines. On the surface it’s a love song; the subtext is a shout-out to Souleyman’s hometown of Al-Jazira. Ya Bnayya (Hey Girl) is an even more rapidfire pastiche of samples and tremoloing synth doing a snakecharmer ney flute impersonation. It’s a hypnotically pulsing love anthem to a girl who can make all of Istanbul sway when she swings her hips, as Souleyman’s sweaty vocals confirm.
Es Samra (Brown-Haired Girl) follows the same trajectory, further down the scale. If the previous track is a violin, this one’s a cello, and Souleyman’s rugged delivery matches that. Aenta Lhabbeytak (rough translation: My Only Love) is a slower, more backbeat-driven number, Alo throwing one creepily techy texture after another into the mix to match the brooding lyrics.
Khayen (Cheater) has rapidfire synth that sounds like shreddy metal guitar, an insistent back-and-forth between vocals and keys, synth, then some cynically funny faux-autotune from the keys. Mawal is the album’s most organic-sounding song, a hypnoticallly circling lament fueled by stark violin (or a good electronic approximation) and Souleyman’s aching vocals:
I walk and my heart
Feels dead among the dead
They told me patience is the remedy
They said you have to be patient
I said what’s the good of patience…
When the pain is so deep?
The final track, Chobi (Longing for Home) brings the dance beat back, but with a slinky, clip-clop groove and more warpy synth. Souleyman sings as a refugee:
We have too many wounds
All of them scream,
“I miss Al-Jazira!”
As poignant as it is energetic, this is an important album from an age of displacement and despair that only looks to get worse.
Word to the wise: dudes, get this album. If there’s a woman alive who can resist Souleyman’s rasp, this blog hasn’t discovered her.