Syrian veteran Omar Souleyman's dabke music (a high-octane hybrid of street-level party music and synthesised beats) is about as vivid a form of pop as one might encounter anywhere in the world. Of course, the sheer cultural and political distance between Souleyman's Syria and the comfortable West has kept his music very much a fringe concern, but with more exposure to it our ears could easily come to equate it with bhangra and other genres now happily included in our national diet.
Jazeera Nights is a compilation rather than a traditional album, and compiles 15 years' worth of recordings and live performances. On first listen they appear relentless, battering even, but consistent adventuring reveals deft, incredibly well-delivered instrumental melodies. Bashed keyboards are matched by more traditional Syrian and Arabic instruments, all nestling between the incantations of Souleyman himself. During his live shows, in his trademark sunglasses and headdress, he stalks the stage from side to side while the incantations fall from his mouth in curiously arrhythmic patterns. In these live settings (many of the recordings here are taken from wedding performances), it is more a case of the delivery than the lyrical content. Thanks to the enclosed lyric sheet, though, we are privy to some astonishing poetry.
Strangely, the lyrics on Jazeera Nights share more in common with those of heavy metal than any other genre - they are poetically, almost comically over-wrought and dramatic. This extends even to the song titles themselves. It takes a strong performer to open an album with a ditty entitled I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands, and a stronger one still to finish it by saying "My heart won't forget you until death". Things get even more disturbing on the concluding Eih Min Elemkom, with Souleyman screeching the following in Syrian: "Oh my God, my liver has rotted from waiting for you. Oh why, why, why?". Stirring stuff, particularly with frenetic beats fizzing all around it.
The combination of all these elements makes Omar Souleyman a special artist. His humble beginnings, his undeniable alien cool, and the utter danceability of the dabke sound make for a compelling listen. Those surreal, disturbing lyrics make for the cherry on top. Pop stars are made differently in Syria, but Omar Souleyman has the potential to take Western pop for his own, if we'd only listen.