You don’t have to understand music to enjoy it. Lyrics, beats, instruments and riffs could very much be just noise if a band doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi to pull it harmonically together. Mashrou Leila is all about that je ne sais quoi.
Leila is a feeling translated to the music the band’s seven members played, matched and mismatched to create an album that has them booking and playing live concerts all over the region.
With two concerts under their belt in Cairo, Mashrou Leila have built themselves quite a base here. “Performing in Egypt was one of the best experiences we’ve had in live performance. When we played the song we dedicated to the Egyptian revolution, people went crazy,” says Haig Papazian.
The band started in 2008 when a couple of its members posted an open call for students in the architecture and design department in the American University of Beirut (AUB) to come together and jam.
“Some of us were fed up from the stress of school and the country’s situation; we needed something fun. Our projects were taking over our lives and we had stopped playing music,” says Papazian. “When we posted the note for people interested in creating original music, 15 people showed up and we started jamming. The second time 12 people showed up, and it kept going that way until it became just us.”
Equipped with a microphone, a violin, a bass, two guitars, drums and keyboards, the seven that remained from the open call two years ago, Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges, Hamed Sinno, Omaya Malaeb, Andre Chedid, Firas Abou Fakher and Ibrahim Badr, performed in Cairo on May 7 at the Geneina Theatre and on May 8 at the Cairo Jazz Club. Both performances were sold out and were a hit with both the audience and the band.
“Around 1,500 people made it to the Geneina Theatre show. In terms of performance, we didn’t play as tightly as we’ve played before. I messed up a couple of times, but halfway into the concert the sound got a lot clearer and we were a lot more in control of what we were doing. The audience had loosened up and the energy was flowing. People got on stage with us and started dancing,” says Sinno.
The band felt that everyone was enthused about life after the revolution. They were overwhelmed by it. Even though the band had performed in Qatar, Dubai and Jordan in the past few months, Cairo was just something else. “It was much closer to the kind of reaction we get in Beirut, even more. People are just so warm here,” says Abou Fakher.
Experimenting with Music
Their music is hard to define. With hints of Arabic tarab, rock, folk, pop and electro, Mashrou Leila’s first album is a mixture of sounds, but at the same time, it has no defining sound. Their 2009 debut album of the same name made it big, cementing Mashrou Leila as one of Lebanon’s most poplar underground bands.
“We clicked well musically. Even though we don’t all listen to the same stuff, the way we brought in our parts to that jam environment made sense to the seven of us. We also respected the way each of us chooses to live their life; none of us were sexist, homophobes, racist or sectarian,” says Sinno.
With this unbiased understanding of culture and music, Mashrou Leila’s brand of music is spreading, and fast. Egypt and many other Middle Eastern countries are already on the bandwagon, so are France, the UK and Germany. “Apparently we have fans in Lithuania! I don’t know how our music got there,” says Papazian. “We already kind of saturated the scene in Lebanon because it’s pretty small. That’s why our Cairo performances were mind-blowing.”
With future plans for performing at the Exit Festival in Serbia soon, it will be the band’s golden opportunity to perform at their first international festival, opening doors to a more global audience. “Hopefully, the global community will understand our music; I think our music carries a certain message aside from the content of the words,” added Papazian.
The Truth Is in the Content
The band is currently working on a new album coming out on July 29 that they recorded, produced and mixed on their own. But they don’t see it as an actual second album; it’s more of a follow up. “We thought the first album sounded too cute. Right now, the band is self-sufficient, this is why the second album is much more us,” says Gerges.
Most would probably disagree. The lyrics are sometimes critical of life in Beirut and openly touch on problems with the diverse sub-cultures of Lebanon, something that may not find its reflection in other Arab societies and is not necessarily addressed by mainstream Arabic music. The band does not shy away from using swear-words in their lyrics.
The nine songs on their first album are raw and discuss love, war, politics, security and political assassination, materialism, immigration and homosexuality — things Lebanon’s youth deal with day in, day out.
“I was surprised, especially when it came to the sexuality in our lyrics, that people would still come up to us saying that they felt the music. They would comment about certain songs that I cringe while singing onstage because I don’t want to get something thrown at me,” says Sinno.
It’s inspiring to see such a young group of people maturely tackling such issues and creating such powerful music, while holding on to the cheeky notions of youth in their dealings toward one another, and how they have the media eating out of their hands when it comes to their much-discussed name.
“Hamed lied on TV and said that Leila was the ex-front women of the band, and that she had died, so we decided to name the band after her as a tribute. After the concert, the same journalist interviewed me, without me knowing what Hamed had already told her, and asked me how I felt about playing without Leila,” says Papazian. et