Omar Souleyman has long been an enigmatic figure. The Syrian wedding singer rose to prominence on the international music scene over the past several years, becoming a fixture on the summer music festival circuit, with his wildly danceable repertoire of dabke and other Middle Eastern electronic folk-pop styles. All the while, he’s stayed maddeningly reticent about war and politics in Syria, perhaps with very good reason.
With his new album To Syria, With Love he has finally broken his silence. Two songs, “Chobi” and “Mawal” deal directly with the homesickness and grief of a Syrian forced to leave their country. (Souleyman himself lives in Turkey now.) “Mawal” is the only downtempo song here, a dirge-like lament with doleful strings, on which he sings “Being away from home/Is like having dust in the eyes/I walk and my heart/Feels dead among the dead.” On “Chobi,” his voiced sounds flat with heartbreak. Context is everything, and in this case, it is devastating. These aren’t simply sad songs about missing home, but songs that describe the wrenching collective trauma of mass exile and a diaspora in the offing. On this album, it’s tempting to hear even the love songs as being in some way about home.
It’s a shame that the Syrian tragedy must inevitably overshadow all other aspects of the record because To Syria, With Love is musically interesting in its own right. His first release on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, the production, predictably, pumps the bass way, way up. The beats are much harder, the sound more compressed than on his previous releases, and the arrangements have a sensibility geared for the EDM era, but with an audible appreciation for the musical roots Souleyman draws on that saves it from being a neon disaster, like the sassy string flourishes on “Aenta Lhabbeytak.”
For anyone who has been following Souleyman’s career, there is a sense of relief that comes with him opening up on the subject of his homeland’s crisis. No doubt, his continued reserve on the subject became difficult to maintain in many ways. And these songs are such an important gift to the world: A document of the human experience of this moment, an aid to understanding now and an aid for the memory of future generations. Still, like any pop star, he’s never owed any of us anything. He’s already given, and survived, so much.