When I meet up with Omar Souleyman in March, he’s sitting on the floor of his manager’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, relaxing after a full day of recording with Four Tet, who has flown in from London to produce the Syrian musician’s Ribbon Music/Domino Records debut, Wenu Wenu. Souleyman smokes cigarette after cigarette and sips glass after glass of hot tea. He dons dark sunglasses for the duration of our interview, which occurs entirely via an Arabic-English translator seated at his left. There is a civil war going on in Souleyman’s country, and sometimes, when it comes up in conversation, I notice his hand working its way up a string of worry beads.
Souleyman specializes in a traditional form of Arabic folk music called dabke; its propulsive rhythms make it perfect for singing and dancing in groups (usually weddings), but Souleyman is known for making it even more uproarious, cranking up the BPM and filtering it through a future-friendly palette of electronic beats and screaming synthesizers. Here in the West, following a string of releases on archival world music label Sublime Frequencies, he’s developed something of a cult following among collectors of obscure and idiosyncratic sounds. In the Arab world, he’s a household name, but that didn’t stop him from being forced to leave his hometown of Ra’S al’-Ayn when the escalating violence between the Syrian Armed Forces, the Free Syrian Army and others made it too dangerous for anyone to live there.