Consisting of just six tracks lasting a total of 36 minutes, Schlon – billed as “six new techno-meets-dabke songs of romance and love to the world” – is a curiously short offering from Syria’s Omar Souleyman. Here is after all an artist under whose name some 500 live recordings have been released down the years, from his days as a wedding singer in his pre-civil war homeland soundtracking line-dancing throughout the rural parts of the Levant, to his recent lauded international studio works. But, as with much of Souleyman’s studio material to date, every track here bears repeating again and again.
Already making a name for himself a decade ago thanks to Sublime Frequencies’ compilations Highway To Hassake, Leh Jani and Haflat Gharbia, Souleyman’s music has since evolved organically from lo-tech handclaps and busted market synths to a crisper production sound as appreciation of his party-starting vibes has grown and the collaborations have ensued. Following his first two Four Tet-produced ‘proper’ albums – 2011’s Wenu Wenu and 2015’s Bahdeni Nami – and 2017’s relatively radical sound shift on the techno-orientated To Syria, With Love, Souleyman is these days established as something of a dance icon, with the keffiyeh-and-shades iconography to go with it. As a globetrotting staple of festival bills across the planet, he signed with Diplo’s Mad Decent operation, making him a labelmate of Major Lazer and Riff Raff. Schlon’s title track goes some way to indicate why, offering a crossover of sorts between dabke and the reggae rhythms Major Lazer have updated and promoted.
Souleyman is here reunited with longtime collaborator Moussa Al Mardood, whose romantic poetry lines he gruffly sings as calls, these being met with an assortment of shimmering musical responses. Amid a good deal of romantic whimsy, space is found both for Souleyman’s vocals and a varied musical palette of arrangements. Longtime music director Rizan Said and his wild keyboard riffs have made way for a subtly sleeker sound, anchored by the double keyboards of Hasan Alo and saz from Azad Salih, like Souleyman these days an exile living in Turkey.
Centrally-placed Mawwal, billed as “a song about love that will last forever”, is the most traditional-sounding track. Notably slower of pace than the surrounding songs, it begins with an evocative extended guitar and synth intro which pitches firmly towards film soundtrack territory before Souleyman’s commanding baritone joins the mix front and centre.
The rest of the album is designed for movement. Shi Tridin (translated from “What Do You Wish For?”) is typically propulsive but also surprisingly Balearic – this could readily and joyously find its way into beach holiday soundtracks. Given it’s sung from the point of view of “a lover ready to offer his beloved anything she wishes under the sun”, the atmospherics certainly fit the preoccupations. More of this thematic bent follows with Abou Zilif, a tale of “a man in admiration of a woman with green eyes and blonde hair”.
f3tini 7obba, marginally the album’s longest track, ramps up the call-and-response format to a pace somewhere near frenetic, and the dial stays thereabouts for perhaps the biggest surprise on the album, lead single Layle. Back from it can be traced an urgency of vocal performance which unexpectedly shares some commonality with – of all people – Jacques Brel. Musing on a woman’s lips as sweet as the regionally lauded dates of Hillah, Iraq, the theme of the song and indeed of the whole album is perhaps not too far removed from the great chansoner’s coupling considerations; in different times and circumstances, perhaps Brel would have made a career as a wedding singer.
Certainly short and in places sharp, Schlon is just the right level of sweet, too. With increased variety in his arrangements and a willingness to explore slower paced rhythms, Souleyman underlines his ability to fulfil a passionate mission for bringing joyous music and its message of love to ever wider audiences.