Queer, Arab and so rocking the message

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


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 pre-judice 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.”

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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