The name of this Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, means “The Night Project.” Their sound is a blend of Arab pop and western electronica. But what really matters is what they are singing. It’s not what you might expect, and it gets them into trouble.
Using the band’s easy-going pop sound as a shield (or maybe sugar in the medicine is the better analogy), lead singer and songwriter Hamed Sinno sneaks serious socio-political commentary into his songs, with a distinctly left-leaning bent. He is openly gay and not afraid to sing frankly about his lifestyle, not to mention questioning gender identity, gun violence, the controlling power of religion, ecological ethics, and other hot-button issues.
These songs would make certain Americans fume, so it’s not surprising they’ve recently caused officials in Jordan to cancel their concerts. And their fans take on a risk, too. On September 26, seven audience-members at a gig in Egypt were arrested for waving a rainbow flag.
Before delving into their lyric content, it’s worth enjoying the band’s sound first. Let’s establish Sinno as a gifted singer on the pop edge of the classic Middle Eastern style. I don’t have the translation for the lyrics of “Habibi” (The title means “My Love,” referring to a male), but that’s all right. Enjoy the voice, the interplay with Haig Papazian’s violin solos, and the solid support from Firas Abou Fakher on keyboards and guitar, Ibrahim Badr on bass, and Carl Gerges. You don’t need Google Translate to hear the longing and sexuality in this performance.
These five men formed Mashrou’ Leila in 2008, when they met at the American University in Beirut. They have released three albums (2009 Mashrou’ Leila, 2013 Raasük, and 2015 Ibn El Leil, and the 2011 EP El Hal Romancy). Because I don’t speak Arabic, I will focus on songs with translated videos available. The band does release traditional music videos, but they also want the English-speaking world to discover them. Instead of putting captions over the mini-movies, they put out special “lyric videos” with no visuals except a slowly spinning winged devil statue and English captions. I admire how that demands a focus on the words.
If you read the captions, you’re rewarded with their courage. “Kalaam” (“S/He”) deals with gender identity. It’s impossible for an American to understand how brave it must be for them even to broach such a topic. The style is inspired by old-fashioned R&B love songs, with a digital snare backbeat. If you’re not really listening and analyzing, this is just an innocent slow dance:
Name your favorite controversial issue, and Mashrou’ Leila probably has a song about it. Take violence, for example. Although many people think of the Arab world as a violent place, in general, mentally distressed individuals don’t wander into business or schools and randomly shoot everyone in sight. So, when it does happen, it’s particularly shocking. “Magwahir” (“Commandos”) was written after a rare nightclub shooting in Beirut. Sinno expresses the sudden and complete change the experience causes in those who survive: “All the boys become men / Soldiers in the capital of the night / Shoop, shoop, shot you down … We were just all together, painting the town / Where’d you disappear?”
The musicians chose a strident tempo, not slow mourning, as if they wanted a song about this club tragedy that could be danced to at another club as a reminder on another, happier night:
If “Magwahir” deals with Beirut’s anger at that tragedy, then “Tayf” (“Ghost”) deals with its sorrow. The violin hook seems to call into the netherworld. I wish the percussion were less static to give this piece more shape. As usual, the lyrics contain powerful imagery of urban heartbreak: “I danced the debkeh until I was high on the marrow of the electric pole and I poured neon tears on swollen pupils.”
Clearly, these men do not shy away from the controversial. As part of a promotion for Greenpeace, they released this video called “Falyakon” (“The Sun Unites Us”). So now they’re taking on climate change. “The past is not a future decreed. The path will either protect or destroy us.” The spiccato bowing on the violin portends a hollow doom.
Not all their work is political, but that doesn’t make it any less controversial. In “Comrades,” Sinno sings about a one-night stand at a club and the enervating monotony of too many unemotional attachments. This would be daring stuff for a western artist, the kind of lyric you might get from Rufus Wainwright or Brendan MacLean.
Not surprisingly, the grip of religion on society has come up in lyrics. (It’s worth noting that the bandmembers represent a variety of religious backgrounds.) Sinno chose to handle this delicate topic with satire. “Djin” is about the worship of booze above all other gods. According to rumor, at least, this was the song that caused one of their concerts to be canceled in Jordan, a Muslim-ruled country where drinking is strictly controlled. Fans of all faiths expect that kind of defiance from the band, and hold up Sinno and his colleagues as heroes, representing the fight for greater freedom.
Mashrou’ Leila has toured America several times; in fact, they’re currently in the States. All in all, it’s probably the ideal time to be a band that flies in the face of everyone’s expectations of Arabic culture, even the expectations of Arabs themselves. The world has a lot to learn.