From wedding performances in Syria to western venues packed with the coolest crowds in town, the last two years have been quite a journey for Omar Souleyman, writes Dan Hancox. Anywhere else the scene might seem incongruous, but here it is almost fitting. Omar Souleyman is sitting cross-legged on the tiled mezzanine floor of the Scala, a venue in London's King's Cross that over the course of almost a century has played host to everything from demobilised troops returning from the First World War to banned art-house films and the only UK concert by Iggy and the Stooges. Regardless of the theatre's colourful past, though, this is the first time its billboards have been illuminated with the name of a 41-year-old Syrian folk-techno fusionist.
As the rush-hour traffic roars outside, Souleyman explains his unusual journey with sanguine calm. In the early days of his career he made his name as a wedding entertainer, slowly gaining fans thanks to a prodigious output of grassroots cassette recordings and video clips of his performances. In an earlier era, Souleyman would probably have been destined to remain a strictly local phenomenon - and might still have done, had the California-based musician and record collector Mark Gergis not amassed an extensive library of Souleyman's tapes during frequent trips to Syria.
Some years after making his discovery, Gergis brought his finds to the attention of Alan Bishop, of the Seattle record label Sublime Frequencies. Both men were smitten with the raw energy of Souleyman's music and decided to collaborate on the release of 2007's Highway to Hassake. This compilation of excerpts culled from existing street tapes marked the artist's debut album in the west. Since then Souleyman has been featured at No5 in NME's 2009 list of the "Future 50" musical innovators and, judging by the recent torrent of blog and Twitter posts relating to this show, also become the hottest ticket in this particular town.
To leap from private performances in the north-east of Syria to filling 1,100-capacity nightclubs with the British capital's hippest crowds may seem like an unlikely career trajectory, but it is one that this artist is extremely happy to take in his stride. Souleyman explains that he dropped out of school at a young age because of an eye injury and worked a series of odd jobs until the mid-Nineties, when his musical aspirations began to pay off. He began by performing ataba folk poetry over the traditional Levantine dance rhythms of dabke. Then, in 1996, he brought on board the Kurdish multi-instrumentalist Rizan Sa'id to provide the frenetic electronic keyboard backing that has now become the hallmark of his sound.
"We take from the old and the new," he explains, from beneath his red and white kaffiyeh and sunglasses. "From the old we use the oud, and from the new, the electronic keyboard. The old instruments are vital to the spirit of the music, but the new instruments allow us to do new things." He is also unfazed by suggestions that purists may take exception to his open-minded attitude to traditional music. Public opinion is all that matters, he says: "The younger generation like it. In Syria, if you go to the market in the Jazeera area, most of the tapes will be by me."
This may seem like a hyperbolic claim - to have released more music than everyone else in north-eastern Syria put together - but Souleyman can back it up. After the release of Highway, it was often said that he had released 500 cassettes. "Now it's more. More like? 750?" he guesses. Many of these are live wedding recordings replete with bespoke lyrics written for the host families by Souleyman's poetic collaborators. His home-turf appeal has inspired legions of copycats, he says, but he prefers to view such imitation as flattery: "Some people might take my tapes and sing my lyrics, but I only ever sing my own lyrics. My words are mine, my style is mine."
On one level Souleyman's style is certainly his own, but on another it is the music of millions: a border-crossing amalgam that blends Syria's centuries-old poetic traditions and dabke rhythms with Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic folk influences, notably the frenetic Iraqi genre of choubi. "Jazeera is right on the border between Iraq and Syria, so it feels like it is one country. We have the same culture," Souleyman says. There exists a tendency to see any folk music as an established set of standards, preserved in amber. Blessedly, its reality is one of complexity and constant evolution. Indeed, Souleyman has witnessed the Syrian musical scene change a great deal, even in the last few years.
"The dabkes, or the rhythms, used to be a lot slower than they are now. The music has sped up," he says. Is this a foreign influence? "No, we developed the speed. We started out with slower rhythms, but each year it's got faster by about 10 beats per minute. The change came from the electronic keyboards - you can just turn the speed up and make it faster with your hand. I think it has reached its limit now. It has to stop - you can't do it any faster, it's too fast to dance to."
The question of how to respond to Omar Souleyman's music proves an initially vexing one for the Scala's sell-out crowd a few hours later. He enters the stage to the plaintive strains of Ali Shakir's buzuq (a stringed, lute-like instrument) and Rizan Sa'id's occasional keyboard riffs. Then the pace intensifies. Still, for all its gregarious nature, there's a lot of heartbreak in Souleyman's music, as his newly released album, Jazeera Nights, attests. A collection of live recordings from 1994 to 2009, its song titles include Stab My Heart; I Signal, You Deny and My Tears Will Make the Stones Cry.
It is amusing to behold an English crowd attempting to dance to something it doesn't quite know how to relate to. Fortunately, with Souleyman's help, inhibitions are quickly cast aside. He paces the edge of the stage clapping his hands, beckoning to the crowd. His most successful manoeuvre is to sweep his arm along and then up, an injunction to raise one hand into the air as the leader in a dabke dance would. It may be a long way from a Syrian wedding, but the crowd soon realises that a lack of knowledge of the right steps is not a problem, and begin to make up their own: a mixture of naive attempts at dabke, flamenco, Bollywood hand-flourishes, fist-pumping, foot-stomping, rock moshing, even the festive footwork of an Irish ceilidh.
It's a mess, but a glorious one. Denuded of context or comparative experience, shorn of the arch judgements normally made by music lovers in a city with a lot of music to judge, the only option left is to enjoy. Sporadically the buzuq's idiosyncratic motifs drop away to leave only a thudding, smeary electronic drum pattern. This basic foundation underscores the physicality of Souleyman's music and begs for participation. During a three-song encore, the singer breaks into Leh Jani, his breakthrough hit in Syria in the 1990s, and then in the west a decade later. Its announcement elicits a huge cheer - perhaps the only bit of mutually intelligible verbal communication between performer and crowd all evening. By this point the normally inscrutable Souleyman is smiling - a celebratory punctuation mark in a joyful story.
As another young Londoner spins sweatily past me, grinning from ear to ear, I remember asking earlier in the evening what Souleyman made of his burgeoning cult status outside the Arab world. "Here the crowds encourage me more with their dancing," he said, referring to the reception he encountered on a smaller-scale European tour last year. "Back in Syria I've been asked, 'When you go to the West and sing, will they understand you?' Maybe they do not understand me, but they like the music. The words I sing are not really that different from the words that other bands sing. The only difference is that one is in Arabic, and one is not. They are the same feelings."
Dan Hancox is a freelance writer in London and a frequent contributor to The Review. His work also appears in The Guardian, New Statesman and Prospect.