The Prodigal Sons of Lebanese Pop
On their new album, Mashrou’ Leila eschew both record labels and political labels.
As Mashrou’ Leila takes the stage at Los Angeles’ Club Bahia on a Monday night in November, a roar rises from the crowd. This group cry isn’t mere fan enthusiasm or some simple sound of joy. Instead, it’s a kind of aural catharsis, a collective expression of belonging one can usually experience only during communal religious practice or spectator sports. It’s rare, in Los Angeles, to find this many Arabs—from all walks of life, from all religious backgrounds—congregated in one place. They’ve gathered here, late on a school and work night, to see their favorite band on its first U.S. tour.
This event has been a long time coming. The anticipation has been building for almost seven years. The band has traveled all over Europe, the Middle East, and even Canada. But a number of factors—including tight travel visa controls—have prevented them from performing for their U.S. fans until now. Their U.S. tour took them to Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The shows are precursors to the release of their fourth album, Ibn El Leil, a dark dance album that explores mourning, grief, and escapist fantasy.
No opening act is necessary for the band in Los Angeles—the audience is primed and ready. To many in the crowd, the group has become an avatar of our own supranational histories and narratives This relationship, the one between Mashrou’ Leila and their followers outside Lebanon, is mediated by a special alchemy of diasporic longing. The band is our tether to a homeland many of us never experienced. A dingy dance club in Echo Park transforms into an imagined nation of hyphenate Arab-Americans—outsiders to a culture they never saw themselves reflected in, outsiders to a culture that rejected them. Identity is a heady drug, especially when it binds you to one another.
This is what pop stars do best: absorb the ambitions and desires of their fans and mirror them back to us.
A few hours earlier, I was sitting around a picnic table with the band, who, dressed predominantly in black, appeared out of place among the verdant foliage of Griffith Park. There is lead singer Hamed Sinno; violinist Haig Papazian; guitarist Firas Abou Fakher; bassist Ibrahim Badr; and drummer Carl Gerges. We are 20 minutes deep into the conversation, and despite my attempts to steer the exchange toward their new album, I can’t get them to stop talking about art.
“The art scene in Beirut is monopolized,” says Papazian. “There is this group of artists that came to prominence after the civil war and they're all discussing, through art, topics around the Lebanese civil war and identity and post-traumatic discourse. It's been going on for the last 20 years.”
“We don't have the proper spaces for art in Beirut,” says Abou Fakher.
“We don't have proper music spaces to do concerts,” concurs Papazian. “Every time we do concerts, it has to be outdoors. Or something that we set up.”
“We're talking too much about art,” says singer Sinno, right before launching into a discussion of a new art museum that has opened in Beirut. “How come [in interviews] I never get to talk about music or art, the way I'm doing now?” he asks, much later.
His question motions toward a central challenge for many Arab artists: that their art is often subject to the political and social implications of their identity. And when you call Lebanon your home, this is especially true. Consider the fact that Sinno is openly queer, and you can imagine how these elements have shaped media narratives on the band. In the past few years, according to the journalists who write about them, Mashrou’ Leila has “challenged oppression,” “changed the tune of Arab politics,” “pushed cultural and political boundaries,” and “confronted homophobia.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="false"]There was this constant attempt to repackage or remodel the band—you know, change a bit of the sound, make it sound more typically 'oriental,' which, for me, is basically conservative.[/quote]
“There's the more obvious stuff where, like, you get asked to play in a country and then you realize that they want you to play at a world music festival when you’re not really making world music, whatever that means,” says Sinno. “But then there’s also the weirder stuff, which is this expectation you should speak for your culture.”
Mashrou’ Leila began attracting the attention of Western media outlets in 2009 and 2010, as their witty wordplay and rambunctious sound began saturating the airwaves in Lebanon and neighboring countries. Immediately, they were typecast as a politically renegade music group. “Just because you’re brown means you can’t make indie pop,” says Sinno. “It's ‘Arab indie pop.’ Which I think can be a really, really dangerous discourse to entertain. A blues musician from Lebanon is just a blues musician.”
Mashrou’ Leila initially emerged as the hobby project of a group of architecture and graphic design students at the American University in Beirut in 2008. There, academic instruction provided them with progressive, leftist frames of reference for the world. These ideological discourses saturate their music in both form and substance. So it is true that Mashrou’ Leila’s music is, in fact, political—sometimes provocatively so—if not in intent, then in effect. Their oft-cited hit song “Shim El Yasmine,” from their debut album, narrates a queer relationship between two men, hinting at a still-present taboo in Lebanese society. But it’s a love song too, and one that is rhythmically engaging. The musicians, however, are rarely asked to talk about technique and style. “We’ll go to France, someone will ask how we feel about Charlie Hebdo,” says Sinno. “Or we'll go to Italy and someone will ask us if we can buy CDs where we come from. It's embarrassing.”
With the advent of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Mashrou Leila’s fans conceived new explications for the music. “The interpretations go their own way,” says Abou-Fakher. “[Our music] gets appropriated for movements in Egypt at a particular time or to a cause in Palestine at another time.” Songs that previously gestured at discontent were reappropriated as calls to revolution. They were played at political rallies in Cairo, Tunis, and Amman, where the band has massive—and growing—audiences. “Inni Mnih,” a song on their 2011 album El Hal Romancy—in which Sinno sings, “let’s burn this city down and build a more honorable one”—was misread as an anthem for the Egyptian revolution. Once, at a music festival in Beirut where the group Gorillaz was also playing, the band sang an Arabic rendition of Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood” as a tribute. The clip found its way online, where it was reinterpreted as a rallying call for protesters in Tunisia. “It gets all these political associations slapped onto it,” Sinno says.
Sinno and his bandmates, however, reject the notion that they are singular in this regard. Artists “are only perceived as political when they contest [the status quo],” says Sinno. Pop powerhouses like Haifa Wehbe and Nancy Ajram—two of the biggest singers in the Arab music world—are no less political than Mashrou’ Leila, he says, because mainstream artists’ cooperation with establishment norms amounts to an acceptance or endorsement of the status quo. These pop stars represent, in many ways, the homogeneity of the Arab music scene, an industry that panders largely to the broadest and most conventional tastes. The imperative to make money prohibits the use of provocative themes, which means overt references to politics are discouraged. The flow of capital determines the success of certain music acts, and these music acts in turn have conformed to specific standards of sound and appearance.
It’s this paradigm that compelled Mashrou’ Leila to launch #OccupyArabPop in 2013. The band members were no longer willing to defer to the tastes of music label executives. “There was this constant attempt to repackage or remodel the band—you know, change a bit of the sound, make it sound more typically ‘oriental,’ which, for me, is basically conservative,” says Sinno. The campaign, one of the largest ever in Arab pop music history, helped them fund their third album, Rassùk, which they wanted to release independently. They raised more than $67,000 to finish the record.
“The big labels are only going to fund you if you fit into their formula,” says Sinno. So they bypassed the labels altogether.
Rassùk demonstrated a willingness to deviate from a successful recipe. And the band’s newest album, also released independently, does the same. “We were planning to write a dance album, and then it became an album about dance, but it’s not very dancey,” Papazian says of their latest offering, Ibn El Leil.
Mashrou’ Leila debuted Ibn El Leil to a sold-out audience at the Barbican Theatre in London at the tail end of November. The new album’s tone diverges from the jazzy, folk-rock sound they have cultivated over the years. “For this album, we wrote some of the stuff with drum machines and really shitty laptops,” says Abou Fakher. “That kind of influenced the sound that ended up being very different.”
The lyrical tone of Ibn El Leil differs from Mashrou Leila’s previous fare as well. While writing the album, Sinno experienced the death of his father. “It was a pretty traumatizing year of his illness and gradual deterioration, and it was just the stuff that was on my mind,” Sinno says. Frequent references to father and son build a motif for the album, most significantly on “Icarus.” Ibn El Leil translates to “Son of the Night,” and the specter of death and grief loom large over every track.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Shootings in clubs in Beirut happen more frequently than I think people would like to admit.[/quote]
Certainly, the album is darker than the band’s others, with lyrics that edge toward an emotional oblivion. In “Djin,” the third track, Sinno sings, “I don’t do sodas, I don’t do teas / I drown my sorrows, forget my name and give myself to the night / liver baptized in gin, I dance to ward off the djin.” The lyrics are an exercise in demystification, an attempt to dismantle the myth of Beirut as a playground for Western jet-setters and nightclub-hopping tourists. “At the very beginning, we were sort of pissed off about the way Beirut is always portrayed as this party destination,” says Sinno. “For people who live there, there's a lot of actual politics that get negotiated in these spaces, in bars and clubs.”
The “danciest” song on the album is also one of their most sobering. “Maghawir”—which begins by narrating a night out in Beirut—is about nightclub shootings in Lebanon. “Shootings in clubs in Beirut happen more frequently than I think people would like to admit,” says Sinno. Only last month, a club shoot-out in the city killed eight people. “Wear your black suit and come down,” Sinno sings on the track, “bearing that when snow caps the hill / all the boys become men / soldiers in the capital of the night.”
In a way, Ibn El Leila is classic Mashrou’ Leila: romantic angst and turbulent grief and caustic humor, set against the drama of everyday life in Beirut. It makes you want to weep. It makes you want to dance. It becomes a reflective surface for your own sorrows and your own melancholies, and a conduit for emotional release. This is what Mashrou’ Leila does best. But Sinno and his bandmates wonder if it will be enough.
“People want us to address society at large and politics and whatever,” Sinno says. “It's a very personal album, which makes this the riskiest album the band has done so far, because people don't want that from us.”