Souleyman learnt his craft performing at weddings and other ceremonial occasions. Legend has it he would present the bride and groom with a recording every time, leading to an unprecedented number of "unofficial" Souleyman albums in circulation. In 2007 the Seattle label Sublime Frequencies released Highway To Hassake (Folk And Pop Sounds Of Syria), a compilation of tracks culled from these hundreds of rough recordings. This was his first exposure to Western ears. His vibrant live act didn't take long transcending small venues for festivals and large-scale events worldwide.
As Ian Manley noted in his review of Wenu Wenu , the music is meant to be a little rough around the edges, and Bahdeni Nami follows suit. It's a take on dabke, a folk tradition and dance with origins in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Over the years, as Souleyman's band have turned more and more towards synthesized instrumentation, the music has transformed into a breakneck amalgam of electronic and Syrian traditionalism. The result sounds something like an Arab take on dancehall. Then there's Souleyman's lyrics: ballads of love and loss, written by himself or native poets such as Ahmad Alsamer, who features here in the background, and Hassan Hamadi, who's been known to feed Souleyman lines live on stage. And that's the real crux of it: Souleyman is first and foremost a performer, and his is music made to be heard live. Experiencing it anywhere but in a crush of sweaty bodies, clapping and stomping in unison, won't quite do it justice.
Bahdeni Nami seems less about Omar Souleyman the band and more about repurposing its music for a very different kind of dance floor. Take the two standalone tracks not produced by collaborators: "Mawal Menzal" and "Darb El Hawa" are smouldering folk songs, almost lackadaisical in pace compared to the rest. We're allowed to revel in Khaled Youssef's skilled saz work, or be swept away by Souleyman's soulful crooning. They feel like they've been included as a mark of respect, because they're anomalies. Elsewhere, the album is ruled by its variant 4/4 basslines, which make the whole thing more soundsystem-ready. Each producer has added their own digital wash; even the saz in Four Tet's version of "Bahdeni Nami" sounds electrified in comparison. Though some may see this as a leap away from its dabke origins, the results are the same in the end. People are going to dance to this, so only the context has changed.
Legowelt's version of "Bahdeni Nami" is a complete departure from the formula, touching on some squelchy, druggy acid trip. The keys have been fully synthesized and Souleyman's vocals heavily reverberated. It's moody and dark, far from Souleyman's usual upbeat cadence. Maybe that sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does. It's a total weirdo crossover success, and perhaps Bahdeni Nami's standout if club fodder is what you're after.