Mashrou’ Leila are a journalist’s dream – an edgy Beirut-based indie-art band who sing strictly in Arabic, addressing regional issues of class, race, religion and sexual politics.
A band who refuse to sign to a label, instead financing their work with the #OccupyArabPop crowdfunding campaign. A band fronted by the controversy-courting lead singer Hamed Sinno, a rare voice prepared to bare his identity and interpersonal ideals in song and speech, regardless of the consequences.
And, perhaps for all these reasons, a band who rank among the most successful to emerge from the region, playing dozens of shows a year across the Middle East and Europe, despite refusing to sing in English.
It is telling to learn that Mashrou’ Leila have performed more in Paris than they have in the UAE.
After a two-year absence from the country, the quintet return tonight with a performance at Dubai’s MusicHall, wrapping up an autumn tour that has taken them to Zurich, Milan, Rabat, Cairo and even a gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
“The first time we go to a city, it’s mainly Arabic expats coming to the shows,” says founder and guitarist Firas Abou Fakher, “but every time we come back, the audiences get more diverse.”
It’s been a heady journey for the DIY-band, formerly a group of architecture and design students at the American University of Beirut who began playing together in 2008 and self-produced an eponymous album later that year.
Their distinct sound mixes the western guitar of bands such as Radiohead and Arctic Monkeys with elements of electronica, folk and traditional Arabic ballads, and things were starting to get serious by the time of 2011's El Hal Romancy. But they really burst onto the scene in the aftermath of last year's Raasuk, which was recorded at Montreal's Hotel2Tango studio, where Arcade Fire have famously recorded.
In April, Mashrou' Leila became the first regional band to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone Middle East. In September, the album was released on CD in France and is set to be rolled out across Europe, sparking a fresh wave of western media interest.
Last month, the band collaborated with music legend Nile Rodgers on an Arabic-language cover of Daft Punk's Get Lucky, and this month they recorded a live performance at the BBC's London studios.
Little surprise, then, that Mashrou’ Leila are being hailed as the lost voice of a disenfranchised generation of young Arabs.
“We sing about things we think are important,” says Firas. “People might disagree with some of the things we say, but we have the legitimacy now to highlight important issues in everyday life that we would like to change.”
Beirut has plenty of great bands: Pindoll, Lazzy Lung, Who Killed Bruce Lee and recent Abu Dhabi F1 headliners The Wanton Bishops, to name just a few.
But despite the earlier successes of Soap Kills, the Arab-language Beirut trip-hop duo who found success in Europe at the beginning of the millennium, most of the scene is still in English. Mashrou’ Leila stand out as the most prominent act in a small but emerging regional scene whose members sing in their native tongues.
“When we started, we were just a band making music in our rooms – we said ‘let’s only play our own music, and only sing in our own language’,” remembers Firas. “At the time we had no idea what that meant.
“The Arabic language is a reservoir waiting to be tapped – people haven’t really experimented with it in music.
“There’s a precedent now for bands who have made it, who have broken through that strong barrier between music that never gets out of clubs, to music that gets on the radio and TV, and is exported to Europe and North America.”
When Mashrou’ Leila leave the stage tonight, it is likely to be their last gig for some time, with the band returning to Beirut to continue work on a fourth album that already sounds more ambitious, lyrically and musically, than its predecessor.
“We like to think we’re making not 10 songs that make up an album, but an album of 10 songs,” says Firas.
“What we want is to be the first band who are not just an ‘Arab indie-pop band’, but an international band that happens to be based in Lebanon.
“I don’t think that’s impossible.”
• Mashrou’ Leila perform at MusicHall Dubai tonight at 9.30pm as part of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture’s End of Year Event. Tickets cost Dh195 from www.platinumlist.ae