Mashrou' Leila

Le­banese rock­ers fight for the clubs and against cen­sor­ship

NOW Magazine - Pride - - Front Page - By KEVIN RITCHIE

MASHROU’ LEILA at YALLA BARA with with DJ LOUAY, DJ SY­LO­SURF, THE NAR­CI­CYST at Welles­ley Stage ( 15 Welles­ley East), Satur­day, July 2.

Mashrou’ Leila’s mu­sic is sud­denly time­lier than ever.

The Beirut-based in­die rock band’s dancey fourth al­bum, Ibn El Leil (Son Of The Night), ex­plores the ways grief and es­capism con­verge in the noc­tur­nal world of the Le­banese cap­i­tal’s clubs.

The line be­tween those two states of mind is par­tic­u­larly blurry in Beirut, which is con­sid­ered the Mid­dle East’s he­do­nis­tic party cap­i­tal but also has rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lence and sui­cide bomb­ings.

“Beirut’s one of those strange cities where you have two ends of the spec­trum,” gui­tarist Fi­ras Abou Fakher tells NOW over the phone from a tour stop in San Fran­cisco. “On one hand it’s one of the top places to party, and on the other hand is an­other nar­ra­tive: dan­ger­ous city, al­ways lots of trou­ble, al­ways lots of vi­o­lence. For us, the night­time brings a very in­ter­est­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion of those two things.”

When news broke that a gun­man killed 49 peo­ple in a gay club in Or­lando, Florida, on June 12, the tragedy re­ver­ber­ated eerily in their own mu­sic.

The next day, the five-piece per­formed the song Maghawir (Com­man­dos) on NPR. The lyrics were in­spired by a shoot­ing in a club in Le­banon and, more broadly, the mas­cu­line urge to as­sert dom­i­nance through vi­o­lence.

At Mashrou’ Leila’s gig in Wash­ing­ton, DC, later that night, the band’s singer, Hamed Sinno, who is gay, took aim at the way the mas­sacre be­came part of the Is­lam­o­pho­bic rhetoric that’s marked the GOP pres­i­den­tial pri­mary race.

“Sud­denly, just be­cause you’re brown and queer, you can’t mourn, and it’s re­ally not fuck­ing fair,” he told the au­di­ence, ac­cord­ing to CNN. “There are a bunch of us who are queer who feel as­saulted by that at­tack, who can’t mourn be­cause we’re also from Mus­lim fam­i­lies and we ex­ist. This is what it looks like to be called both a ter­ror­ist and a fag­got.”

They then played Tayf (Ghost), a bal­lad about a po­lice raid on a gay club. It was a pow­er­ful mo­ment for a band that has faced down prej­u­dice on home turf for mak­ing mu­sic tack­ling sex­ual and re­li­gious free­dom,

Their name, which means “the night project,” is a tes­ta­ment to the very idea that night­time and nightlife can be­come places of refuge for peo­ple un­able to ex­press their iden­ti­ties freely dur­ing the day.

“I like the idea that a club can be more mean­ing­ful than just mu­sic and gath­er­ing,” says Fakher. “I felt that very much at a our show at the Hamil­ton in DC af­ter the shoot­ings. It was a time when peo­ple were ner­vous, anx­ious and afraid. For those peo­ple to still come to our show and sup­port us is an in­cred­i­ble way of re­sist­ing.”

More and more fans are heed­ing the mes­sage from the Le­banese un­der­ground. Mashrou’ Leila have amassed a large fol­low­ing in the Mid­dle East and are in the midst of their sec­ond North Amer­i­can tour. Their head­lin­ing gig at Toronto Pride on July 2 will be their third lo­cal ap­pear­ance and first per­for­mance at a Pride fes­ti­val.

The band’s orig­i­nal mem­bers met while study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut eight years ago.

All self-taught mu­si­cians, Fakher, Sinno, vi­o­lin­ist Haig Pa­pazian, drum­mer Carl Gerges and bass gui­tarist Ibrahim Badr are atyp­i­cal in Le­banon – not only be­cause they write satir­i­cal songs about taboo sub­jects like sex, par­ty­ing, re­li­gion, na­tion­al­ism and pa­tri­archy, but be­cause their col­lab­o­ra­tive process runs counter to the apo­lit­i­cal pop-fac­tory model that’s dom­i­nated Arab pop for decades.

Ibn El Leil, which came out last Novem­ber, is their most per­sonal al­bum yet. Sinno deals with his grief over the death of his father in many of the songs.

The al­bum adds heavy synth sounds into the mix and struc­turally is in­spired by clas­sic pop of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

In much the same way as Sinno poses ques­tions around iden­tity in his lyrics, the rest of the group grap­ples with what it means to make a pop al­bum in the Arab world to­day.

“How is it ac­cepted that pop mu­sic sung by su­per­stars is con­sid­ered very Arab, but any­thing that’s in­flu­enced by any­thing else is sud­denly non-Arab or very Western? What does it mean to have com­po­si­tions to re­flect that?” says Fakher.

“In the 30s and 40s, there were French and clas­si­cal in­flu­ences in mu­sic that is now con­sid­ered very Ara­bic,” he con­tin­ues, adding that a lot of Arab mu­sic is tra­di­tion­ally based on monophony and melodies re­peated si­mul­ta­ne­ously across in­stru­ments and vo­cals.

“There’s an am­bi­gu­ity al­ways as to where the lis­tener stands with re­spect to the mu­sic,” he says.

De­spite their sub­ver­sion of pop norms in the Arab world, Mashrou’ Leila have largely es­caped state cen­sure, but that may not con­tinue to be the case as their pro­file grows.

In the past two years they’ve worked with Nile Rodgers on an Ara­bic cover of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and graced the cover of Rolling Stone in the Mid­dle East, and their al­bum re­lease con­cert for Ibn El Leil at the Bar­bican in Lon­don was simul­cast on MTV Le­banon.

By April, they were fa­mous enough that Jor­da­nian of­fi­cials banned them from play­ing a con­cert in a his­toric Am­man am­phithe­atre be­cause their songs “con­tra­dicted” the be­liefs of Chris­tian­ity, Ju­daism and Is­lam.

Artists and fans were swift to con­demn the can­cel­la­tion as cen­sor­ship, and the gov­ern­ment quickly re­versed the ban.

“It was re­ally ridicu­lous – there’s no other way of putting it,” says Fakher. “It was a smear cam­paign. It was ill in­formed. It was badly writ­ten. It was ev­ery­thing you ex­pect from some­body who wants to pass a de­ci­sion off with­out caus­ing trou­ble.”

Given that Mashrou’ Leila had per­formed in Jor­dan six times be­fore, he con­sid­ers the lat­est con­tro­versy a mark of suc­cess.

“Some peo­ple are [now] less will­ing to let things slide. [Be­fore] we were not worth their trou­ble,” he says. “Now peo­ple are start­ing to re­al­ize [we are worth their] trou­ble, which is a bad thing for us but also flat­ter­ing. It’s quite a com­pli­ment.”

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