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25 f The Dabke Demon

Punk? Ptui! Syria’s Omar Souleyman is the purveyor of one of the wildest, most life-enhancing rackets ever to hit a UK stage, and yet it’s rooted in traditional music. Andy Morgan has several theories…


ook at Omar in his sheer white body-length jellabiya and ging- ham keffiya, with his Arab hit- man shades and AoE tache, look- ing like a flesh and blood version

of Sheik Yerbouti’s Yahoo Avatar; Omar the hillbilly from Hicksville, Syria, who sings with a voice like a chainsaw and has taken old music and mashed it into a buzzing, bleeping, thumping mess. Or a raw zinging breeze of newness and hon- esty. Take your pick. Take sides. Listen to Omar and believe me, you won’t be sit- ting on the fence for long.

Omar Souleyman is a magnet for con-

troversy, for virgin wonder, loud guffaws, unwary bafflement and clandestine gig- gles, for the incredulous anger of cultural elites or the amazed delight of unsuspect- ing hipsters from Frisco to Frankfurt on the Oder. To the hip he’s an adorable techno- naif, a strange apparition from another world, an Arab trance-merchant with a spiky sound, whose music cruises and cavorts with grit, hedonism, impossible scales and vertiginous beats. For them, the very fact of his improbable existence is already half the charm. To certain culturati however, especially the nomenklatura of Syria’s cultural community and some more conservatively minded ‘world music’ folk in the west, Omar Souleyman smacks of gross cultural misappropriation, a kind of conspiracy of trash. I mean, is he and are his backers at the Sublime Frequencies label just taking the piss, demoniacally sucking the gullible into a great cross-cul- tural pop-art happening, like Syria’s answer to Malcolm McLaren or the KLF?

Step No 1: invent some shite tinny key- board pop muzak. Step 2: Get a couple of mates to form a super-cheap touring unit. Step 3: Foist your artless headbanging fizz on the world like it’s the new dawn of popular Syrian music, making sure you concentrate your fire on clueless young technoheads and audio-exotica freaks. Step 4: Pick up a few A-list endorsements from Björk and Damon Albarn along the way. Step 5: Travel the world, play all the festivals that matter (Glastonbury, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Sonar, Central Park Summerstage, Eurockéenes De Belfort etc.) and belly laugh indecently whilst fin- gering the greenbacks. Sounds just too evil to be true, doesn’t it?

When Omar Souleyman is led into a quiet bell tent backstage at the Shambala Festival for our interview, he doesn’t look or act like the Johnny Sauron of Middle Eastern pop. In fact he’s quite the oppo- site. Small, wiry with smooth healthy skin and intelligent eyes hovering behind those iconic aviator shades, his manner is neat,

polite and at times almost taciturn, per- haps due to the drag of having to talk through a translator.

At the end of the interview, after a brief absence, Omar bursts back into the tent where his keyboardist Rizan Sa’id and I are stitching together a conversation about home studios out of scraps of bro- ken English and evening-school Arabic, and clambers under the covers of the tent’s blow-up bed, shivering. The damp chill of a cloudless late summer’s night in Northamp- tonshire is seeping into his bones. “Back home we have similar weather,” he tells me earlier, “but only in winter. Right now the daytime temperature is 42C. In three months’ time it’ll be down to zero.” Rasha, our translator, comes in with a poo-brown hippy jacket and Omar dons it gratefully over his white jellabiya. I notice a stove in a corner and suggest that we brew up some tea. We light both burners and Omar hud- dles next to me, rubbing his hands over the calor gas flames and blowing into them with satisfaction. As he settles into his com- fort zone, Omar exudes a kind of unfazed toughness, as if he’s huddled round a pre- cious source of warmth in this way a mil- lion times before, routinely, without com- plaint, like a trooper.

“That’s what Omar is: a trooper,” Mark Gergis, the man who brought Omar Souleyman out of Syria and onto the world stage, confirms over the phone a week later. “People work really really hard where he’s from and they age very quickly. I’ve seen it first hand. It’s not an easy life in those villages in the Jazeera.” The Jazeera (The Island) is Syria’s very own ‘Midwest’, its farming belt, tucked far away in the far north-eastern corner of the country like an ugly but useful tool hidden away in a broom cupboard. Turkey and Iraq are just over the border. Damascus, and all its glit- tering urban sophistication, is a 12-hour bus drive away. The land is flat, dusty and overexploited. The Khabour river, which makes it into the Bible as ‘The Habor’ (check 2 Kings 17:6), is drying up. So are jobs in agriculture. It used to be the coun- try’s breadbasket. Now it’s turning into a rural basket case. It hasn’t rained properly for a decade. “Next to Tell Amir, the village where I was born, there’s a river,” Omar told me. “It’s been dry for ten years. I always used to go there and fish when I was a kid, or just sit and pass the day. It used to be beautiful in the springtime.”

Omar Souleyman’s home territory is as

far off the tourist trail as you can possibly imagine. The only foreigners who go there are either archaeologists who have come to drool over the 3000-year-old ‘tells’, or prehistoric man-made mounds that dot


this big country, or the odd music producer in search of his grail. Yes, very odd indeed. Cue Mark Gergis, a tall dark music fan of Iraqi descent, resident in San Francisco, who has played in countless punk/ noise/ art/ musical theatre combos (Mono Pause, Neung Phak, Lord Chord, Porest) and spent years indulging his wayward passion for hunting down arcane global pop, mostly on cassette, in the public libraries, or South East Asian and Middle Eastern emporia of the West Coast and Detroit, where most of his Iraqi family are based.

n 1997 Gergis decided to take his first trip outside of the USA and opted for Syria “because it seemed like the last bastion in the Middle East of the old Arab World”. There he kept hearing this fast, ferocious and wildly electronic form of dabke music blaring from cassette kiosks and taxi stere- os. Dabke is the universal foot-stomping, line-dancing, shut-up-and-boogie pop beat of the Middle East, as lowbrow and unpretentious as you can possibly get. There’s no equivalent to it in England, because it’s a genuinely traditional, yet living and ubiquitous dance form, invent- ed, so they say, centuries ago by villagers who had to pound down earthenware roofs to make them solid and watertight. If the English hadn’t consigned Morris dancing to the attic of shame and embar- rassment, then we might have kept some- thing similar in our culture. When I voice this conjecture to Omar Souleyman his response is unequivocal: “Well people in your country should dance the traditional music. Folk music is heritage. If you lose it, you lose your soul.”

Check the dabke action on YouTube and you’ll see it in all its graceful and gaudy settings. Young dudes in football shirts, fat middle-aged men in suits and ties, prim traditional dance troupes in the threads of yesteryear, old men and women in jellabiyas and head-dresses, young girls in skin-tight jeans or multicoloured robes, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Egyptians, all dancing the dabke, in a line, holding hands, laughing, together. It may be embarrassingly naff to some, but it’s the musical heart and soul of a people, the unselfconscious sap and resin of family and community life.

“I was very familiar with dabke music and I was still learning a lot about it, as well as choubi music which is the equiva- lent in Iraq,” Gergis recalls. “But never before had I heard such a sound, that fre- netic, that raw, that fast. It really grabbed me. And every time I would ask, ‘Who is this?’, the same answer would come back: Omar Souleyman.”

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