“I think we’ve changed fundamentally because of many things, not only because of the music and the success,” says Hamed Sinno, the charismatic lead singer of Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. “But because of age, experience, time, travel, you know, all the things that change everybody.”
Mashrou’ Leila is the poster boys of Arab alternative music. That rare breed of band that all fans believe they have an intimate personal relationship with. Much of this has to do with melody and lyrics and the sheer quality of musicianship, but a sizeable amount of credit lies at the feet of Sinno and his on-stage interaction with violinist Haig Papazian. They are the focal point of any performance, all strutting raw energy and emotional complexity.
After years of constant gigging the group finds itself at the forefront of a surge in interest in alternative music from the Middle East. The band tours extensively, has sold out at London’s Barbican, and is set to embark on another tour of the US in October. Not bad for a band formed in 2008 at the American University of Beirut.
“We’ve definitely gotten a lot stronger,” says Sinno. “When people romanticise fame and notoriety, they tend to forget that more often than otherwise, it feels like you’re always under attack. It really does help you build thicker skin.
“We’ve also gotten a lot more patient. People come at us with a lot of stuff that seems extremely irrational sometimes, and you kind of just learn to take it with a grain of salt and move on. Like often it seems really strange that people talk to us as though we were political representatives instead of artists, or people will tell us some rather personal things about their lives as though we’d been friends for years, when in fact we’ll have just met.”
They’re not alone of course. There’s the Palestinian band 47Soul and its “futuristic sound of dabke,” the politically-inspired Egyptian rock group Cairokee, Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi, and Jordanian acts El Morabba3 and Autostrad. They all, in their own way, form a potent cocktail of attitude, spectacle, and socio-political lyricism.
“A decade of conflict, revolutions, turmoil in the region, and a rise in Islamophobia around the world have all contributed, for better or worse, to a shift in Arab culture, including music,” says Anthony Khoury, lead singer of the Beirut-based band Adonis, whose third album, “Nour”, has just been released. “Especially alternative artists and bands, who openly tackle socio-political issues and [bring them] to the center of the international stage.”
In some ways their success is also a reaction to what singer Yasmine Hamdan once described as Arabic pop kitsch, or musical junk food that pollutes the airwaves and recycles clichéd constructs of love and heartbreak.
It is partly because of this pollution that Khoury believes music in the Arab world needs both revival and renewal, and why alternative bands have found an audience.
“The Arabic language is unparalleled in its richness and playfulness. Yet local pop songs have been ruminating for decades on a very limited group of words, ideas and structures, which has severely flattened our language,” says Khoury. “For us, the revival of Arabic music is first of all a rediscovery of the Arabic language and the possibilities it offers.”
Yet the independent music scene remains a challenging place to be. Mashrou’ Leila, 47Soul, and El Morabba3 have all had to crowdfund albums.
“Anything in Beirut that does not fit the pop industry’s mold is a really tough sell,” admits Mashrou’ Leila guitarist Firas Abou Fakher. “In the beginning we had to establish even the most basic of networks and navigate a world without any sustainable infrastructure. But that adds an important element, which is the ability to meet people who have the same passion to persist and find each other across the fields of music, film, design, art and photography.
“That said, one of the most fascinating things about the music scene is that most of us end up finding alternative ways to generate our own stuff, be that recording spaces or gigs or management tools. But very few of us have ever attempted to generate alternative platforms that would make it easier for the next person to do the same thing. In that sense, a lot of the ways in which the music scene has challenged the mainstream have been self-serving, or ephemeral. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing.)”
Mashrou’ Leila defies easy categorization. It used to fall under the label of indie folk – or folk rock – although such tags did the band a disservice. The band combined elements of Arabic, Armenian, and Eastern European folk music with various sub-genres of rock and electro, but went harder towards pop and synth with its most recent album, “Ibn el Leil”.
Bizarrely, the group remains unsigned, largely because regional record labels expect far more conservatism in their compositions, lyrics, and public engagement than Mashrou’ Leila is willing to accept. If nothing else, the band is socially and politically outspoken, refusing to shy away from confrontation, especially in relation to gender equality.
In July the band released a music video for the single Roman, directed by Jessy Moussallem, which has been received both as a feminist anthem and as a critique of the current political environment.
“It’s really difficult to see how social and political inequalities in the Middle East can begin to level out before addressing the question of women’s equality and gender justice,” says Sinno of Roman. “That said, the video has opened up a lot of interesting conversations for us in our personal lives, about trying to draw the lines between faith and the institutions that claim it in a region where the religious institutions’ hegemony has made things difficult for many.”
Do they think they’ve had an impact, socially and politically?
“Maybe,” replies Sinno. “Sometimes we feel that the diversity in our audiences, at home and abroad, is already a pretty amazing statement. It’s definitely beautiful to see from stage… Past that, we’re not very clear yet about the actual limitations of music and media to have tangible impact through representation. We’ve definitely been at the center of a lot of debate, but it’s difficult to assess what that actually accomplishes.”
Four records to buy/download now
Mashrou’ Leila – “Ibn el Leil”
47Soul – “Shamstep”
Yasmine Hamdan – “Al Jamilat”
French Montana – “Jungle Rules”