The Sound of the Underground

How Mashrou' Leila are changing the Arab world

MASHROU' LEILA: Ibrahim Badr, Firas Abou Fakher, Haig Papazian, Hamed Sinno and Carl Gerges (clockwise from top)
Oscar Ortega
By Adam Grundey
Apr 06, 2014

IF YOUR ONLY EXPERIENCE of Arabic music has come via network TV or the larger mainstream radio stations – the Rotana- and Melody-dominated production line – chances are you’ve been seriously underwhelmed by the variety on show. Since the early Eighties – with very few exceptions – the Arabic music scene has been dominated by either bubblegum pop or classical ballads. In both cases, the music generally sticks to cookie-cutter melodies, and the hyperbolic lyrical content almost always concerns a melodramatic love affair of some kind; basically the aural equivalent of a daytime soap opera.

Beyond the mainstream, though, there is a small but growing number of bands writing Arabic-language songs that are both musically innovative and lyrically engaging. Bands who – given time and good fortune – have the potential to make the same kind of impact on their culture as rock music made on Western society in the Sixties – changing not just people’s listening habits, but the way they think and express themselves. Heading the charge are a five-piece indie band from Beirut: Mashrou’ Leila.

In the six years since they formed, Mashrou’ Leila have gained a large following around the Middle East and beyond. Their music, which incorporates guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and violin, turns the band’s diverse influences – including American and Eastern European folk, Oriental jazz, electro-pop, grunge, and trip-hop – into a rich cinematic sound that is entirely their own, and distinctly Middle Eastern, all without resorting to the musical tropes that have so alienated Arab youth from the region’s mainstream scene. And their lyrics, delivered in frontman Hamed Sinno’s distinctive warm soulful rasp, address the everyday struggles of young Arab adults – anger, frustration, tension (both societal and sexual), boredom, politics, love and lust. Add in the fact that their charismatic singer, Sinno, is openly, unapologetically, gay, and it’s little surprise that the band evoke a strong response from their fans. They’ve waited a long time to hear a group that articulates, in Arabic, liberal sensibilities and honest emotions. Little surprise either that the response from their detractors is equally forceful. Mashrou’ Leila pose a very real threat to the status quo of both the regional music industry and of a culture that traditionally frowns upon the expression of alternative viewpoints.

ON A SUNNY FALL AFTERNOON in Beirut, Hamed Sinno is sitting at an outdoor café, discussing the origins of Mashrou’ Leila. The band members met as students in the Architecture and Design Department of the American University of Beirut (AUB). In search of some way to alleviate the pressure in what Sinno describes as a department that’s “known to be ridiculously hard work,” and knowing that their schedules were unlikely to match up with anyone outside of their course, a small group of students started up a music workshop in 2008. There was a ‘No Covers’ rule, but apart from that it was basically a free-for-all. Soon, the original seven-piece lineup of Mashrou’ Leila was in place, and they quickly began to formulate a sound of their own out of their jam sessions – “It happened very intuitively,” Sinno says. The only clear guideline they gave themselves, the singer explains, was that “we didn’t want to fall into any genre easily.” It was, he adds, “easier to define what we didn’t want to do than to actually postulate something. There was a process of elimination.” And there was one very definite shared goal in particular.

“The one thing that everybody in the band had in common when we first started was that issue of turning on the radio and never hearing anything in Arabic that you could actually relate to,” Sinno says, citing seminal Lebanese duo Soapkills as the sole exception. “I literally hated everything else I heard. It was impossible for any of us to identify with this music. So we knew we didn’t want to sound like the typical Arab pop that we heard on the radio, because we were sick of it.

“I feel like, at some point, the problem with Arabic music is that people started thinking that ‘Arabic’ meant a genre, instead of just a language or an abstract ethnic identity that didn’t need to define the actual creative output.” And so, Sinno continues, “they insist on playing their songs based on traditional maqams [melodies], with one of maybe 65 typical ethnically inherited rhythmic structures, or whatever. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have a very shallow understanding of it, where I’ve never gone past, ‘OK, this sounds the same. I’m not interested.’”

It wasn’t just from the music that Sinno and the other members of Mashrou’ Leila felt detached. The lyrics had no resonance for them either. “Everything was, ‘Oh my god! I’m in love!’” Sinno says, adopting a convincing airhead-gossiping–with-friends persona. “‘And my lover doesn’t like me! And I’m a girl! And my lover’s a boy! And he’s all macho! And I have big tits!’” He laughs. “It’s always like that. And, I mean, there is a lot of drama in love. It’s love, right? But when there’s one archetypal kind of genre that’s always resorted to, then you know it’s kind of insincere. Because for an emotion that is that hard to describe to be felt the same way, with the exact same words, by that many people across the board is essentially bullshit. So we decided we wanted to make stuff in Arabic that we felt we could relate to.”

“We wanted to make music that we would like to hear coming out of our city at this point in time,” says guitarist Firas Abou Fakher. “I think it was that simple.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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