You may never have heard of Omar Souleyman, but he's something of a folk hero in his native Syria. Since 1994, he and his musical compatriots have released hundreds of cassette albums of predominantly live recordings, which have long been an ubiquitous fixture on Syrian music stalls.
Accompanied by his multi-instrumentalist sidekick Rizan Sa'id, Souleyman brings the party Middle Eastern style, rocking a lively fusion of the Syrian, Turkish, and Iraqi sounds that reverberate throughout his northeastern rural base region of Hassake. The music -- which Souleyman often performs in marathon sets at local weddings -- takes that region's traditions and gives them an avant-tronica twist, with exotic serpentine melodies wheedled on phase-shifted keyboards accompanied by more traditional instruments such as the guitarlike saz and the lute-ish oud. His lyrics are composed by local poets -- often on the fly and whispered into his ear during live performances -- and deal with all manner of life's foibles.
Lyrical translations border on surreal: For example, the first track on last year's Jazeera Nights translates as "I Will Dig Your Grave with My Hands." The album, Souleyman's third release on the guerilla ethno-musicological label Sublime Frequencies, features Syrian dabke (a regional folkloric dance and party music), Iraqi choubi, and Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish styles. Compiled from cassettes recorded between 1995 and 2009, it's a driving, fun barrage of otherworldly sounds. When my roommate first heard it, he was blown away. To him, it sounded like demented corner-store music with a techno bent. And that pretty much nails it.
Souleyman was brought to the world's attention by Oakland's Mark Gergis, who picked up many of his tapes during exploratory trips to Syria and has since released three compilations of his work via Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies. Because of the current political volatility in Syria, the label and Souleyman have taken an official "no comment" stance, with Souleyman declining press interviews. But Gergis would say this regarding the upcoming U.S. tour: "Omar's ready to go and he's excited about it. He isn't coming here for the politics, he's coming here to bring street-level dabke music from Syria to the West Coast for the first time."
Omar Souleyman performs tomorrow (Tuesday) night at Mezzanine.