There probably aren’t many wedding singers with as impressive a career trajectory as Omar Souleyman. Since 1994, he’s had around 500 albums released under his name, most of them recordings from his various nuptial gigs that have been copied and sold locally. In 2011, things changed drastically. Civil war broke out in Syria, leading Souleyman abroad to Turkey. The year was a whirlwind: he played Glastonbury, among other major festivals, and remixed three tracks from Björk’s Biophilia. In 2013, he released a new album and performed at the Nobel Peace Prize concert. By now, he’s played everywhere from Belgium to Bonnaroo, but on To Syria, With Love, he turns his thoughts — and his infectious music — to the land he longs to see again.
The album opens with the “Ya Boul Habari”, a romantic techno tune with a catchy melody and an upbeat house music vibe. It’s an exuberant start, and “Ya Bnayya” takes it even further with a blast of speed and almost overwhelming energy. The song is too musically substantial to be sugary, but it is utterly infectious. It’s the dancefloor banger that signals the start of the good part of the wedding, once the wine has kicked in, night has fallen, and spirits are at their peak. Those handclaps and Souleyman’s quick lyrics are an irresistible combination.
“Es Samra” and “Aenta Lhabbeytak” are prime examples of pure Middle Eastern pop music. The synths, the drive, and the dramatic lyrics (“Day and night, I wished you were with me / You and your black eyes full of secrets”) are indulgent in the best way. Drinking in the music on these first tracks — filled with expressions of desire and bold emotion — is a good way to end up totally intoxicated.
But Omar Souleyman has more on his mind than dancing and brunettes, and he spends the last two tracks in mourning. “Mawal” is a weary lament (“I said what’s the good of patience / When the pain is so deep?”) on which his voice cracks from a deeper place as he suffers from a homesickness that slices all the way through him. To hear him in such agony is heartbreaking, a marked departure from the cool crooning throughout the album.
Final track “Chobi” sees Souleyman ending on a resolute note as he takes the plight of his people straight to God. It’s a compelling midtempo cut that anchors the album with an urgent, weighty message that comes straight from Souleyman’s heart and speaks for displaced Syrians everywhere with the unanswerable question that opens his song: “When will our alienation end / So we can go back home?”
On To Syria, With Love, the title tells it all. It’s an album dedicated to Omar Souleyman’s friends, family, and countrymen, and he wears his heart on his sleeve throughout. The band backing him knows how to throw an incredible party. The beats sound a little old school, but it’s easy to embrace them when they’re served with so much feeling. To Syria, With Love is not an album for everyone — from the outset, these songs are sonically specific and never look back from those first unrelenting beats — but once you give in to the open emotions and the irresistible urge to dance, it makes for an ecstatic experience.