BEIRUT -- Before the Middle East exploded into the battlefield it is today, a Syrian rock band inadvertently captured the mood in a song.
They called it "Under Pressure."
The band, appropriately named Pressure Cooker (Tanjaret Daghet in Arabic), released its first music video this summer and is due to release a debut album next month. Recently, they rocked Sporting, a popular beach venue in the heart of this Mediterranean capital, playing their own style of assertive, bold rock music and meanwhile channeling many of the issues that challenge young Arabs today, including how to express dissent, manage conflicts and explore one’s individuality in the face of political and cultural upheaval.
People under the age of 35 comprise the majority of the population across all Arab countries, and war and violence aside, millions of them must come to grips with archaic cultural norms, stifled economies and, sometimes, equally stifling family relations. That's the vein that Pressure Cooker has tapped.
I recently met up with the band members over coffee along Beirut’s busy Hamra strip, not far from the music venue where they usually perform. They had left Syria months before, not just to escape the violence, they said, but to grow as musicians. “In many ways, our music is about our revolution against ourselves, as persons,” Khaled Omran, 30, the bass player and lead singer, said.
I first heard Pressure Cooker at Damascus’ Jazz Fest in 2010. It was a beautiful midsummer night at an outdoor concert venue at the Syrian capital’s citadel. Stage lighting illuminated ancient stone as the acoustic set wafted over an appreciative young crowd. Most of the performers were Syrians fusing jazz and Eastern music with florid Arabic lyrics. The festival was becoming a popular annual event, eagerly awaited by Damascenes and expats alike. This was Syria before the war -- a tranquil time when sparrows chirped long after sunset and fighter jets never buzzed in the skies, before the bombs, the frequent rapes, the mass exodus.
In retrospect, perhaps it was the moment just before things reach a boiling point, the final simmer before the inevitable explosion -- the moment when everything's under pressure.
In 2010, Pressure Cooker captured the mood in their eponymous song’s chorus, delivered a cappella style, like an ominous, jazzy whisper: “Under pressure. Under pressure. Under pressure. Under pressure,” the chorus singers hissed.
I asked the band members what was brewing beneath the surface when they wrote "Under Pressure," which isn't to be confused with the 1981 David Bowie hit by the same name.
“People are tempted to tie it to the war in Syria, to the politics in this region,” Omran said. “But it’s about universal pressures. Oppression is a universal theme. There’s pressure to belong, to get married, to succeed, and on and on.”
Such themes, he said, have become more obvious during their time in Beirut. In Syria, they felt confined as artists, partly due to Omran's rigid, classical studies at a state-run conservatory, and partly due to the government's uber-paranoid security apparatus that felt threatened by such things as rock ‘n’ roll.
Tarek Khoulouki, 24, vocalist and lead guitarist, recalled the time he was picked up for questioning and interrogated about his taste in music and his overall punkish look. “Oh, you mean you’re devil worshippers?” Khoulouki recalls being asked by state security agents. “They’d ask me: ‘What’s the long hair? The T-shirt with a skull? The leather wrist band? What’s the hidden meaning?’ They thought it was code language for some underground, mystery society.”
Omran nodded. It was a familiar scenario to him as a result of his three-month stint in a Syrian jail for smoking hashish.
But at their performances in Beirut, Pressure Cooker was unconstrained by authority, and delivered their music with unabashed power, articulating exactly what pressures they were now singing about. And they did it in their unmistakably Damascene accent, which is readily identifiable to young Arab ears and put the band in a category all its own. Their sound, in short, was entirely new -- something that tends to excite young ears, assuming, in this case, that they’re attuned to hard rock.
“Many Beirutis in the audience come up and ask us with surprise: You’re Syrian? Are you really Syrian?” Khoulouki said. “This is when I know we’ve delivered above expectations.”
The audience’s reaction isn't just cultural snobbery, though there's a measure of that for the band to overcome. Many Beirutis associate the Syrian accent with the brutal commands of Syrian soldiers who ran roughshod in Lebanon for years, rudely ordering Lebanese citizens to disembark from their vehicles at checkpoints and sometimes carrying out acts of looting and violence with impunity. (The Syrian soldiers were expelled in 2005 by mass protests, after Syrians allegedly assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.)
With Pressure Cooker, the same Syrian accent once used for oppressive purposes now articulates the pressures that Arab youths of all nationalities face. When Omran bellowed the song’s lyrics from the stage in Beirut, accompanied by hard-rock instrumentation, there wasn't a shred of subtlety.
“Under sexual pressure!" he shouted into the microphone. "Under economic pressure! Under capitalism pressure!”
Then, with a softer delivery, he sang about the travails of any Mediterranean man.
“Under pressure from my mother,” he sighed.
As we discussed the state of Arab youth, I asked the band members about the familiar theme of the overbearing Mediterranean mother and the son who loves her too much. Like Jewish, Italian or Latin men, Arab men suffer the stereotype of being mama’s boys (and sometimes the stereotype is accurate). The question triggered an animated conversation between the members. “The mother has an exaggerated affection, and she’s very fearful toward her son, so it’s stifling, something to break out of,” Omran explained.
“Besides, it wouldn’t be nice to make an album without mentioning your mother,” Khoulouki interjected. “I know my mother won’t get any of my music, except this part, when I mention her, and it’ll be her favorite.”
“Also, the first demon you face is your mother,” chimed in Raed El Khazen, the band’s manager.
“There’s constant pressure from the mother, like: ‘When will you get married? When will we see your babies? When will you make a real living?’” Omran observed. “The only music she hears in her mind is major drama and violin.”
Such questions are characteristic of parent-offspring relations in all cultures, but can be particularly penetrating in the freighted contemporary Arab world, with so much upheaval in the air. As a result, the band’s reputation has spread through the region.
“They’re singing about anywhere in the world where there’s an oppressive government, where there’s tension between the authorities and free thinkers, which these days is a lot of places,” observed Fadwa Ghannoum, who works as an educator and enjoys listening to Pressure Cooker on the music website SoundCloud. “We’re all made of the same substance, whether biologically or emotionally,” she said. “Our prejudice and intolerance can make us forget that.”
Ghannoum, who plans to see Pressure Cooker in Beirut next month, said the band’s song “Don’t Deflate Me” explores the commonality among young Arabs. Included in the lyrics (which lose a bit of their lyricism in translation) are the lines, “Your story seems to resemble mine. Your voice seems to resemble what I mean. Your pressure seems to resemble my pressure.”
Back at the coffee shop on the Hamra strip, I asked the band members if they have any plans to return to Syria, where their families -- including their mothers, about whom they often sing -- still live.
“No,” they said in unison.
“Anyway, the only music playing in Syria today is boom boom, bang bang. That’s no life,” Omran said.