Mashrou' Leila's New Project

Hamed Sinno of Mashrou'Leila (James Hanna)

Hamed Sinno of Mashrou' Leila. (The Majalla/James Hanna)

The small concert hall at The Garage in Highbury and Islington is a grungy venue that is more familiar with the roaring clang of metal bands with names like “Antichrist” and “Satan.” Last Tuesday night, however, it was the setting for the debut London outing of Lebanese indie pop group Mashrou’ Leila. The unlikely spot for the concert—the band is used to playing to sizable crowds across the Middle East—was a major bonus for the audience. The throng of mostly twenty-something Middle Easterners and Arabists who had flocked to the event seemed captivated as they stood in close proximity to the all-male musical troupe. One shrieked excitedly, “I never thought I’d actually get to see them live in my lifetime.”

Despite their popularity in the Middle East and among the Arabist set, Mashrou’ Leila are largely unknown to British audiences. Its seven members—violinist Haig Papazian, drummer Carl Gerges, lead vocalist Hamed Sinno, keyboard player Omaya Malaeb, guitarists Andre Chedid and Firas Abou Fakher, and bassist Ibrahim Badr—formed the band in 2008 through a music workshop at the American University of Beirut. Their name means “The Overnight Project”—the band sometimes like to play on the word Leila, meaning “night” and also a name in Arabic—and refers to the overnight practice sessions that led to their formation. They released their third album, Raasük, earlier this year, which they crowdfunded in order wrestle control from the record company and to avoid censorship.

Mashrou'Leila (James Hanna)

Mashrou' Leila. (The Majalla/James Hanna)

Mashrou’ Leila is no stranger to controversy in the Middle East. Their lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay, and their candid lyrics often discuss past relationships and satirize Lebanese society and politics. Dressed in a neck scarf and leather vest for the London gig, Sinno’s resonant voice carried the band through some of their slower songs. Mashrou’ Leila also introduced some tracks from their third album, but it was the defining songs from the first two that really roused the crowd. Although it has been suggested that the band’s music would never be popular with an English-speaking audience given their Arabic lyrics, their emotive melodies—a heady mixture of classical slow ballads with tinkling back notes, foot-thumping Armenian folk, rock sounds and something akin to slow polka—have a haunting and rousing quality that no doubt can be appreciated universally.

The band has tried—and failed, due to immigration issues—to come to London before, but were eventually coaxed over by the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Palestinian Society head, Khaled Ziade. Ziade organizes events like these as a hobby, but he did not foresee the level of popular response to Mashrou Leila’s sojourn to London. The concert sold out in days, and a second night had to be arranged at the last minute.

Having toured much of the Middle East and gained steady success there, Mashrou’ Leila’s next step may be to take on the Western music scene. “London is now on the map,” violinist Papazian told The Majalla, adding that they would most certainly be back in town next year.

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