In the last few years, the conflict in Syria has rarely left the headlines. From the beginnings of the war in 2011 to now, the raging battle between Bashar Al-Assad and forces opposing the government – not to mention the rise of Daesh – has been a constant presence on the news. Born in a village near Ra’s al-Ayn in the northwest of the country, Omar Souleyman has an unbreakable bond to his country. With his latest album ‘To Syria, With Love’, he shares his own personal ode to the land.
Except, Omar doesn’t wade into politics, instead setting the recent conflict aside to focus on emotional connections to the land and people. Its lyrics and the poetry of the album have been co-written by long-time collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad, but this time complex electronic arrangements are provided by Hasan Alo. Hasan takes Omar’s foundation of dabke – a folk dance native to the Syrian region that combines circle and line dancing – and ramps the dials up.
As such, while there is the faintest hint of melancholy sometimes embedded into Omar’s vocals (“it’s been six years I’ve been away, and I’m tired of looking for home and asking about my loved ones” he wearily sings at one point), the overriding feeling that washes over much of ‘To Syria, With Love’ is one of celebration. Far from being what you might expect from an album about Syria in 2017, the record evokes the kind of joy present at the occasions dabke would usually be performed at. Filled with polyrhythms and squalling synths designed to get people on the dancefloor, it’s sometimes impossible to remain rooted in your seat.
The drawback of this focus on the high-energy though, is that it can get a little wearing. On opener ‘Ya Boul Habari’, the whooshes and synth swirls that will continue to characterise the record are a pure thrill, and the propulsive nature of ‘Ya Bnayya’ is explosive. By the time ‘Aenta Lhabbeytak’ recycles some of those same sounds though, albeit with some added piano flourishes, the charm starts to wear just a little thin. It’s a relief then that ‘Mawal’, the album’s most contemplative track, strips things down to Omar’s vocals and slows the pace considerably while still resting on a bed of almost jazzy percussion. ‘Tensana’ also mixes things up a little, introducing itself with a flurry of funk-laden, slightly warped melodies and bursts of brass.
Like many from Syria, Omar Souleyman has found himself exiled by the ever-raging conflict in his homeland. With ‘To Syria, With Love’ though, he continues to maintain a connection with the country through his music. Unbridled and often frenetic, it’s a vision that’s far less grim than one might think, and one that’s worth returning to – if you don’t get worn out by the sheer amount of energy that it pours from almost every angle.