By Oliver Holmes

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Ash falling from his cigarette, the Syrian poet taps his finger to the beat of a chant he recently heard from the southern town of Deraa, where an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad started in March.

"It's very creative and witty," said Mohammad Diab, who now lives in neighboring Lebanon.

"They write their poems in colloquial Arabic, not the formal Arabic us poets normally use. The beat and melody are very important in colloquial (language). I've tried to write in this style, but it's too hard for me."

In living rooms across Syria young men and women are creating revolutionary poems, chants, cartoons and films, which they say provides an expressive outlet to protest and keeps up morale in the face of government bullets and torture.

When the protests started, dissidents turned a simple loyalist tune entitled "God, Syria and only Bashar," into a protest song titled "God, Syria and only freedom."

"It sent a clear message," an activist in the capital, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters. "We want freedom and we want Bashar out."

Protesters in Syria are demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule, but the president has responded by sending troops and tanks into cities and towns across the country, killing at least 2,700 people, according to the United Nations.

Syrian authorities refute the claims and say 700 police and army have been killed during the unrest which they blame on "terrorists" and "mutineers."

Poet Diab is most interested in the revolutionary poems that are often read out by old men or children during sit-ins, and the songs and chants.

"It's public poetry. People take proverbs from ancient Arab literature and make them anti-Assad. They change well-known stadium chants into anti-regime slogans." he said.

"We have a proverb that goes, 'If a cold wind enters the window, close it and relax'," Diab said. "Protesters now shout, 'If the regime attacks people with thugs, topple it and relax'."

Although some anti-government songs have been repeated for months and become famous, others change quickly with the pace of events, mocking an Arab leader who refused to condemn Assad or vowing defiance after a particularly bloody massacre.

"The chants are different in (the city of) Homs than in Deraa. Deraa has Bedouin heritage, they listen to different music and speak in a different accent," said Diab.

He slides his beer bottle to the side and starts singing in high-pitched Arabic, ignored by the other patrons in the smoky central-Beirut bar.

"It means 'Death is better than humiliation'," he said.

INFLAMING PASSION

In the northern province of Idlib, where thousands of Syrians have fled the violence into neighboring Turkey, Abdullah spends his nights writing revolutionary songs using melodies from famous Arabic tunes.

In his twenties, the aspiring artist has become famed across the province for his satirical verses.

"I change some words from an old song and keep the melody," he said, speaking on condition that only his first name be used to protect his identity.

"The songs I write are about sad things, but at the same time they invite people to continue to demonstrate and inflame passion," he added.

One activist, who helps coordinate protests in the capital city of Damascus, said chants help keep up morale.

"There are chants with jokes, aggression, strong words. They help people let out stress. A lot of Syrians are boasting that our chants are more artistic and poetic than those shouted in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt," he said.

Popular revolts in those countries have successfully overthrown their leaders in what's come to be known as the "Arab Spring."

"There are people competing to make chants. We have private pages on Facebook where people make up verses and submit ideas, which will then be chosen by coordinators," he said. "Everyone is thinking of something to say."

Protester Noor says she prefers the cartoons, which are graffitied on walls in the middle of the night or posted on revolutionary Facebook pages.

"I was surprised at all the art because they never taught us anything like this at school," she wrote in an email. "I don't know where it came from."

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION

Some of Syria's eminent artists inside and outside the country have been swept up by the revolutionary spirit and now direct their art against Assad, often to their own peril.

Syria's best-known political cartoonist Ali Farzat was severely beaten after he published anti-Assad cartoons, including one showing the president hitching a ride out of town with recently deposed Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

Farzat was thrown out of a car on a motorway outside the capital and left with a fractured right arm and two broken fingers -- a message, activists say, not to continue using his hands to insult the president with his drawings.

Ibrahim Qarshoush, a singer from the central region of Homs, was not so lucky.

The thrashing beat and rap-like verses of the young singer-songwriter's anti-Assad chant made it ubiquitous. Qarshoush's song pronounced 's' as 'th', mocking the president's lisp.

Qarshoush went missing and a video appeared on YouTube showing a man who has been hauled out of a river in Homs. Activists say the body was Qarshoush's -- the dead man's vocal chords had been cut out.

Assad's critics say his brutal methods have created a dangerous twist on the largely peaceful uprising, with increasing reports of armed groups and army defectors clashing with government forces.

On Monday, Syrian tanks pounded the town on al-Rastan on a strategic highway in the greater Homs region, which is emerging as a center of the armed resistance.

ART EXPLOSION

Outside Syria, musical icon Samih Choucair wrote a song titled 'How Shameful', that activists say has been distributed around the country via mobile phones and played during secret meetings. One told Reuters that people save the song under a different name to prevent it being found when they are searched by police.

And award-winning classical pianist and composer Malek Jandali, who now lives in the United States, wrote a composition in solidarity with the demonstrators killed in Deraa.

"I wrote it to give (the demonstrators) a boost," he told Reuters by phone from Atlanta, Georgia. "As an artist you have a responsibility to stand with the people. That's why real art is banned in Syria. Once there is no freedom of expression in art, it's not art."

Jandali says he received death threats after his song went viral on the Internet but he still performed it in Washington D.C. Five days after his performance, he says, security forces brutally attacked his parents who were still in Syria.

He has posted pictures of an elderly couple, their faces blue and swollen, on his Facebook fan page.

"Thugs cut the lights in the whole street, duct-taped my Dad, who is 77, and stole his keys before entering his house and beating my mother in her own bed, a lady who has never been involved in politics," he said.

Jandali said the attackers screamed at his parents that their beating was retribution for Jandali's song and then locked them in the bathroom.

Although tied up, his mother was able to reach into her husband's pocket and grab his mobile phone to call for help. A few days later, Jandali asked his mother if she wanted him to stop playing the anti-government song.

"'Move on,' she told me. 'What happened to us is worth only one of your concerts'."

Jandali says the recent explosion of art in his home country is due to Syrians finding their freedom through popular revolt.

"Once you have freedom, dignity and human rights, you're set. You can have art," he said.

"I have never imagined a courageous young man chanting against the president, like Qarshoush, who died because of his music," Jandali said. "For him to sit on the street and come up with those beautiful phrases, that is true art. It is for freedom and love, not money."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)