|L-R: Firas Abu Fakher (guitar), Haig Papazian (violin), Hamed Sinno (vocals)|
Ibrahim "Sketchy Bob" Badr (bass guitar), Carl Gerges (drums, unpictured).
There are very few musicians and musical groups for which I will express unqualified love. Mirah is one--Souad Massi is another. But at the top of the list, the group which I have loved without qualification or irony for a year and a half now, is Mashrou' Leila (sometimes transliterated Mashrou3 Leila).
I was introduced to them while I was in Beirut, and have always been gutted that I missed what was reportedly an epic performance at the 2012 Baalbek Music Festival. But I have the great fortune of living in Toronto, and this past weekend Mashrou' Leila came to town, performing for a sold-out crowd at our own Lee's Palace as part of the Small World Music Festival.
If you have never heard that music, I cannot recommend it enough. The only way to formally classify Mashrou' Leila is as 'indie arabic rock,' but that is a drastically insufficient description--it would be more appropriate to call them 'freaking awesome, and with a violin.'
Their music breaks convention in both lyrics and sound, combining elements of rock with traditional Arabic and more Armenian and klezmer sounds--particularly on the break-out tracks Fasateen (tr. Dresses--see the video below) and Taxi. They have odes to lovers--hetero- and homosexual--criticisms of the instution of marriage and the economic considerations that make it such an impossible pressure for so many young people...even their political statements (The Checkpoint) are not oriented towards large scale criticisms of politics in the middle east but towards the fears and suffering that those conflicts cause on the ground.
Founded in 2008, while Lebanon was still clearing up the detritus of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war, Mashrou' Leila formed when some of the original members put out a call for musicians at the American University of Beirut. Their music is unique to the Middle Eastern scene, and they are constantly sold out.
In 2012, they cancelled as the opening act for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers in Beirut--they had been violently criticized for agreeing to open for a band who were going to be playing in Israel in the near future and were opposed to the boycott of Israel. What was more interesting than their cancellation at the time was the fact that their fans took to the internet to shame those who had wanted them to cancel--as one young Lebanese man put it: "It's not their fault, and they should get the exposure. You want to shame the RHCP? Go, listen to Mashrou' Leila, and walk out when the RHCP start playing." It was, to put it mildly, a more nuanced response than most boycott activism has received in recent years, and it is a testament to the love that ML fans have for their music.
|Lead vocalist Hamed Sinno: the man can MOVE|
What was true is that everyone, absolutely everyone, was happy to be there.
And how often is that true? How often is there a band that can speak to the hopes of people across political, social, and religious boundaries? Who can make everyone happy?
As much as it may establish that I am lacking in irony (and perhaps realism) the joy of that concert has still not worn off for me. And this week, while I read and analyze the news in from Syria, while I worry about Lebanese friends in Beirut and Syrian refugees who I love in Lebanese, Jordanian, and Turkish camps...when politicians of every stripe and passport make me want to scream...I'm going to remember this concert. And I am going to remember the joy of all the people in that room, and how, for a short period of time, our unified joy in truly transcendent art allowed us to be together as individuals.
And the thanks goes to Mashrou' Leila.
You can (and SHOULD!) download their self-titled album Mashrou' Leila and their second album, El Hal Romancy (The Romantic Solution) on iTunes. And make sure to check out the videos on their Youtube channel. Enjoy.
PS. This was their Toronto premiere, and they have only played Montreal once before this tour--let's hope they'll be back soon!