Omar Souleyman may not be a household name in Cleveland, but he's a pretty big deal in his native Syria. Since 1994, Souleyman has released some 500 cassettes, most of which can be purchased in just about any Syrian music shop. Highway to Hassake -- compiled from said tapes by filmmaker and sound recorder Mark Gergis -- provides a solid overview of Souleyman's oeuvre.
Souleyman takes the folk music found in Hassake (his hometown near the Turkish border) and gives it a hyper-avant-tronica twist: galloping Middle Eastern melodies built from phased-out keyboards and more traditional stringed instruments like the saz and oud. The album starts with the faster stuff -- racing out of the gate with "Leh Jani" (where you learn that your beloved is engaged to another man) -- then hurtles into the breakneck "Jani," Souleyman's first hit. Eventually, Hassake dials back the pace a bit, with midtempo ballads singing tribute to everything from Syria's leaders to the beauty of a bride's ornamentation. This sort of info is gleaned from the album's substantive liner notes, which in addition to making for a more fun and insightful listen, help put a human face on a culture we could all stand to better comprehend.