BACKTRACKS: Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
Written by Vish Matre on 18th July 2020
Backtracks; a series from Melodic Distraction dipping back into the archives in search of tracks that shifted the electronic music landscape. With each edition, we invite an artist or DJ to share their favourite tracks and the history behind them. For this edition Vish Matre of Dar Disku Records, the record label making waves for their reinterpretations of Middle Eastern dance records, highlights the importance of Omar Souleyman in breaking the eurocentricity of contemporary dance music!
It was the first time I had ever heard ‘Dabke’ played outside of the Middle East (where I grew up) and the rhythmic aspect was the first thing that grabbed me. Pounding kick drums layered with hypnotic tambourines, gelled together with the razor sharp lead synths. Almost immediately, the call and response vocals magically were transported into the minds of the predominantly white, non Arabic speaking audience and by the second repetition the crowd were yelling back ‘Wenu Wenu (Where is She? Where is She?) The one I loved where is she’ in a perfect Arabic accent. Standing at almost seven minutes in length, the song is a rollercoaster ride through the parallel rave universe in the Middle East. Each repetition, movement, call and response seems to kick up the energy of the track more and more. By the time you have reached the end, you just want to get back on and do it all over again.
Last year, Omar was playing in Bristol and my Bahraini friends ‘Flamingods’ were supporting him. They asked if I wanted to come down…of course I did. I nervously walked from my house to the venue, downing beers en route in excitement. This would be the first time I saw Omar since that day in 2014. I get to the box office and say “Vish” and the promoter hands me a laminate. Sweet! “I might even be able to meet him”, I thought to myself. 20 minutes to stage, and I’m standing backstage with the guys and I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Omar asking for a lighter. We all go outside and have a smoke together minutes before he goes on stage. His keyboard player hops on. Plays some scales in rapid succession to check if everything was working. The backing track for ‘Wenu Wenu’ starts. I’m wedged between my friends and some local Syrian taxi drivers I met in the queue, who have been waiting to see Omar for over 15 years. Omar roars “Yallaaaaah!” and the rest?….I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t even fathom what was happening.