Anthems for young Arabs

A band with a loyal following among the youth of Lebanon and beyond have rejected deals from the mainstream music industry and refuse to stop singing about taboo subjects. But they still sell out concerts worldwide, says Shirine Saad

Members of the band Mashrou’ Leila, whose songs sung in Arabic about politics, war, class, sex, poverty and sectarianism have earned them a loyal following among Arab youth, pose for a photo at a concert last month in Montreal, Canada. The group’s lead singer, Hamid Sinno, is seated at centre. Courtesy Mashrouh' Leila
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Sex, politics, religion, class, culture. War, inflation, refugees, poverty, corruption, sectarianism. Lebanon is ridden with taboos and problems that some are struggling with and others have given up on.

Over 15 years after the end of the civil war, and two years after the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the country’s future is uncertain, to say the least. In this context, art is both cathartic and threatening to the system, a rare means of expression in a heavily oppressed society.

Mashrou’ Leila, a folk-pop band of twentysomethings singing about the silenced issues of Arabic cultures – such as sexual orientation, violence and classism – are a true indie act, with no record label, agent or business plan, that are making a deep mark among the youths of the region and beyond.

Determined to continue making music despite the lack of support, the band just recorded their new album Raasuk (They Made you Dance) at the legendary Hotel2Tango Studios in Montreal (where Arcade Fire and Godspeed! You Black Emperor have recorded), raised an unprecedented $66,000 (Dh242,431) on the crowdfunding site Zoomaal with their Occupy Arab Pop campaign, and played sold out concerts around the world, including the Baalbek festival, where they drew a massive crowd of fans, most of whom recited the band’s provocative lyrics as they were being sung.

“We wanted to make pop music in Arabic because no one else was making Arabic-language music we wanted to listen to in the region,” said singer Hamid Sinno, the charismatic and controversial singer, before the band’s concert at Pop Montreal last month. “All Arabic pop acts didn’t sound right to us.”

Mashrou’ Leila, which means overnight project or Leila’s project, were created in February 2008 from spontaneous jam sessions at the American University of Beirut, where Sinno, violinist Haig Papazian, guitarist Andre Chedid and pianist Omaya Malaeb, who were design and architecture students, began to perform on campus.

They soon launched their first eponymous album in a steel factory and sold 2,000 copies of the album that night – a milestone in the history of independent Lebanese bands.

In the context of the regional music scene, Mashrou’ are hugely indebted to Soap Kills, the first and most groundbreaking indie band in post-civil war Beirut.

They were composed of Zeid Hamdan and Yasmine Hamdan (no relation), who created dreamy pop tunes in Arabic mixed with enveloping trip-hop.

While they quickly moved on to other projects (Zeid Hamdan supports young musicians through the Lebanese Underground group and has played in other key bands including The New Government and Zeid and the Wings; Yasmine Hamdan is based in Paris and makes her own rock music), they paved the way for new generations of musicians who struggled to come to terms with their mixed cultural backgrounds and the complex reality of post-war Lebanon.

A thriving underground music scene emerged, with acts such as Scrambled Eggs, The Incompetents, Lazzy Lung and The Wanton Bishops, who manage to thrive despite very little support.

Mashrou’ are now at the helm of this scene, bridging the gap between pop, indie music, Arabic song and social commentary, and speaking to an entire generation that neither identifies with the promises of the West nor with the clichés of the Arab world.

“If you ask a young Lebanese what music represents them today,” says Zeid Hamdan, “they will no longer mention Fairouz, Haifa Wehbe or Soap Kills.

“They will say Mashrou’ Laila. And that’s because they are truly indie, they are refreshing, authentic, and far from the disgusting codes of Arabic pop. And they are singing about the realities of society with an absurdist humour. Young people finally have a model that they can dream of.”

The first anthemic song for which they became loved, Fasateen (Dresses), begins with a soft guitar tune.

Sinno’s languorous, melancholic voice implored his loved one to remember her failed promises of a purely romantic marriage, away from all social constraints.

The song features simple lyrics and strong, intimate imagery typical of the band’s style:

Remember when you told me

That you would marry me/

Without money or a house/

Remember when you loved me/

Even though I wasn’t of your religion/

Remember how we were/

Remember when your mother/

Caught me sleeping in your bed/

And told me to forget about you/

So we agreed to stay like that/

Without roles or talks/

Without neckties or morning chats?

As the dramatic violin refrain evolved and the song came to an end, the singer cried out a desperate accusation:

Remember when you told me that you intend to leave me/

Without money or a house?

And Raasuk, the band’s third album, deals with “social control and negotiating the self inside the collective”, says Sinno. Themes run from Lebanon’s dysfunctional society to personal freedom and death. Raasuk, for example, is a song about someone whose heart is removed, and replaced with a metronome that society calibrates and controls. The song deals with the choices society is faced with, and the decision to live in denial and dance.

Clearly these are not themes common in pop music these days – and it is precisely because they tackle taboo subjects that Mashrou’ have become a massive phenomenon in the region.

Indeed, through their mix of Armenian folk violins, loud rock and Sinno’s evocative songs, Mashrou’ offer something no overdone Arab pop star does: sincerity.

Of course, speaking openly about taboo subjects comes at a price. With no government support, almost-nil cultural infrastructure and a hypercommercial regional music industry, the band have struggled to produce their music and tour.

“We haven’t signed on a major label,” says Sinno, “production companies wanted us to change a lot of the stuff about the music because in the Arab world they want to sell really well, so they try to avoid some of the stuff that could bother people.”

And while the band refuses to be labelled as political or engaged, they also refuse to sell into the demands of the well-oiled Arabic pop music machine and its manufactured cultural stereotypes.

“We had one big brush with a record company,” recalls Sinno.

“They said we needed to work on our image, play on the multi-confessional part, or play the cute youth card, which is also very annoying, or ask the girl in the band [she has since left the band] to sing more. They want to brand things one way or another and this is not the way we do things. It’s not a Benetton ad. It’s not because Hamid’s gay or that Haig’s Armenian that we’re a good band.”

Still, only a few years after their serendipitous first performances, the musicians have become symbolic of a new generation’s hunger for change – and they are determined to continue doing things their way.

“We just want to be able to make music,” says Sinno. “That cannot happen with the current state of the music scene in the region. There is no support for musicians, no budgets for anything, not enough studios, and record companies don’t want to sign you unless they know you can appeal to everyone, which we know is not the case with us.

“A lot of people don’t like us because of what we stand for, the way we look or our music. Things have to change.”