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Souleyman: Dabke 2.0

Sound of Syria comes to Hub

By Damon Krukowski
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2010

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Globalization has made the old idea of “world music’’ seem almost quaint. When Omar Souleyman arrives from northeastern Syria to sing his high-energy dabke music at the Paramount Theatre on Nov. 4, he will be backed not by an orchestra of Near Eastern instruments, but rather a sole keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, playing a sample-filled synth designed by one of the same multinational brands sold at Guitar Center, and manufactured in China.

Which is not to say that they won’t be playing a form of traditional music. Souleyman and Sa’id grew up in the same village, Tal Tamr, near the Syria-Iraq border. As Souleyman says via a translator in a telephone interview, they never met — they were both simply there. So was the music they play, dabke, especially popular at weddings and associated with a line dance that it seems every Syrian knows.

New York-based clarinetist and composer Kiran Azmeh explains, “Growing up in Damascus, every time you go to a party or wedding, there’s always dabke music — usually toward the end, where everyone gathers and dances in a circle. It’s an essential part of the community, from the elitist party all the way to the masses.’’

But the dabke of Souleyman and Sa’id’s youth is not the same dabke they will bring to the Paramount. Saz, bazouki, zurna, mijwiz, all have been replaced by their sampled counterparts — which not only makes composition faster (Souleyman reportedly has over 500 releases on the market in Syria), but also tempos. “What was a 15- or 20-minute song,’’ Souleyman says, “is now 6 minutes and change.’’

No live drummer could set the breakneck pace of Souleyman and Sa’id’s sequenced rhythms, which start frenetic and continue unabated. “The original instruments could not keep up,’’ says Souleyman, when asked about the changes introduced to his music by the electronic keyboard. “But I can now have any sound — lots of the sounds are sampled traditional instruments, I can choose any.’’

Sa’id’s solos, regardless of the sampled instrument’s original limitations, are played with fingers flying across plastic keys, at the speed of a video game. The aural effect is of an orchestra running a sprint, each player blowing or picking until they drop — yet there’s always another ready to take their place.

The visual effect is something else again: In a popular YouTube video (“Leh Jani’’), both Sa’id and Souleyman are expressionless as they perform this hyped-up music. Sa’id has the faraway stare of a gamer, and Souleyman — eyes forever hidden by sunglasses — walks slowly and stiffly among the bouncing, celebratory dancers, gesticulating with one hand only as he sings into a wireless mike.

What Souleyman is singing, explains Kiran Azmeh, are love songs, but with lyrics far more flexible than his body language: “What’s unique about the way Omar works, is that he improvises his poetry. He works with a poet on site, so the song changes each time.’’ In the “Leh Jani’’ video, this poet can be seen whispering into Souleyman’s ear — he is giving Souleyman verses to sing, based on the moment. “The lyrics change for each wedding,’’ says Souleyman. “You sing for the bride and groom, talk about the guests . . .’’

But on tour outside Syria, playing at concert halls rather than wedding parties, Souleyman has had to abandon this approach. At the Paramount, the program will be “fixed,’’ he says — meaning lyrics are already written, the songs predetermined. And no poet will be on stage.

There are other important changes for Souleyman in bringing his music to a Western audience: “First of all, in a wedding, the show is three to four hours. Secondly, I am mobile, and can go among the guests. And most importantly, people dance the dabke in Syria. Elsewhere, they might dance — but they do not dance the dabke.’’

As for what it is like to sing his lyrics to a non-Arabic speaking audience, Souleyman adds that it makes him sad when he is singing about love, and doesn’t see any reaction when he comes to the key verse.

Judging by the translations provided in the latest CD of his to be released in the United States, “Jazeera Nights’’ (Sublime Frequencies), those key verses are certainly visceral enough to warrant a reaction:

“I will dig your grave with my hands/ and bury you in my chest . . .’’ (“Hafer Gabrak Bidi’’/“I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands’’).

“Oh my God, my liver has rotted from waiting for you . . .’’ (“Eih Min Elemkom’’/“From the Day That I Told You’’).

“You listened to my enemies/ If they prescribed an amulet for you to hate me, because I can’t stop loving you . . .’’ (“Dazeitlak Dezzelli’’/“I Signal, You Deny’’).

At the Paramount, even if you can’t dance the dabke, you might at least flinch from time to time. Souleyman will be singing about the pain of love.

Damon Krukowski can be reached at ifyouseeitintheglobe@exactchange.com.

OMAR SOULEYMAN

At: The Paramount Theatre, Boston, Nov. 4, 8 p.m. Tickets: $14-$55. 617-824-8000,

www.artsemerson.org