The world of Middle-Eastern music is something that has come to prominence in the recent years of the experimental movement. Artists like Muslimgauze have created intricate works that all relate to its sound palate. Ignoring the political reasons as to why Middle-Eastern music has exploded in popularity within fringe genres is an exercise in futility; the constant news presence of Middle-Eastern countries and the ongoing conflict in those nations has lead to a sincere, if somewhat perverse, curiosity in the culture and ultimately the music of these locations. One of the more recent albums to come from this curiosity is Omar Souleyman’s To Syria, With Love, which explores the landscape of Syria while incorporating familiar tones of Middle-Eastern music and using unorthodox, unfamiliar instrumentation.
Discussing songs on an individual level on an album such as this is rather futile, as much of the LP directly connects to itself, blending into a single entity. Though, it should be mentioned that there are indeed standouts, such as opening track “Ya Boul Habari” and third track “Es Samra,” the first of which thrusts the listener fully into the world of the Middle East, with unrelenting rhythms and musical tones that may be unfamiliar, but are nonetheless extremely enjoyable to any listener — be they Western or otherwise. “Es Samra” is a far more energetic song than even the opening track. Stringed instruments and synths reminiscent of a snake charmer’s flute frenzy about wildly across the track, practically commanding listeners to stand and move themselves to the music.
After the third track, the album goes through a slight shift with “Aenta Lhabbeytak,” which slows down and feels much more intimate. Some of the dancier elements still persist as a driving force within the song, though they are slowed down to a much more approachable speed and played in a more somber key. The most notable component of this track is the vocal performance of Souleyman. His voice rasps in what sounds like desperation or sadness, the tone of the track clearly crying out for something despite the high BPM. The emotional heft is unique as it translates well even to Western audiences who have no understanding of the language or musical history of the genre. It is refreshing to hear an album that is so honest yet easily translated to non-native listeners of the record.
Middle-Eastern music often has a hard time translating over to Western audiences. Far too often it comes across almost like free-form jazz, as it tends to be played extremely fast and in a manner that is entirely unfamiliar to most Western listeners; and that is to say nothing of it being in an entirely different language, thereby removing lyrical impact. Yet it seems that any culture is capable of producing something that can be enjoyed by all, and Omar Souleyman has absolutely accomplished this, even if it was not his goal. The album is vibrant and beautiful and honest beyond belief, the juxtaposition between its call to dance and its honesty is refreshing and delightful. To Syria, With Love is a perfect representation of the blending of reality and escapism that anyone can identify with regardless of their circumstances or culture.