On Friday night I went to a Mashrou’ Leila gig in Paris with some friends from Arabic class. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know who they were before the concert, but being the good sheep I am, I went along anyway and it was great. Admittedly not knowing many (rather, all) of the songs could be seen as a disadvantage but my fresh eyes showed me lots of things I probably would have missed, like how diverse the crowd was, filled with old and young, grey hair and pink, Parisians, Europeans, Arabs, (and those inbetween), gay, straight (you get where I’m going with this) all dancing like crazy to the sounds of Mashrou’ Leila.
Mashrou’ Leila are a Lebanese band formed at the American University of Beirut in Feburary 2008. I’m usually skeptical of Arabic popular music, filled as it is with boring gender roles, emotionally tortured love ballads and a disproportionate amount of plastic surgery. But these guys were different, they seemed to understand what originality, youth and music really meant (and good God were they a good-looking bunch). I got the impression that this was a group who loved creating together – exploring new styles, genres and audiences. It was refreshing and exciting.
The music itself was brilliant, I’ve been listening to the ‘Raasuk’ album on loop all weekend and I wish I had a time machine to go back and sing along this time. Their sound is marketed as indie rock but I found it more akin to Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar but with (dare I say it) better beats and a wider range of sounds – notably the powerful presence of an electric violin. I caught elements of everything from the Arctic Monkeys to Fairuz. Their lyrics are all in Arabic – which, for me, set them apart from anything I’d ever heard to before – and they did a wicked cover of Britney’s ‘Toxic’…in Arabic. Additionally they featured the enigmatic Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra who collaborated with them, playing her hauntingly sensual ‘Beautiful Tango’ among others, in the second half. Despite only knowing one song going in, I could dance, connect and enjoy all their music, a sure-fire sign that they are doing something right.
Lead singer Hamed Sinno had a strong stage presence, joking that he needed a minute to fix the mic stand – it was ‘loose…like our violinist’. One of my highlights was when he stopped to ask if we would take a photo with them, someone nipped onstage with an iPhone and we all grouped together. It struck me as a humble thing to do, something I felt they wanted as a way to remember the night by. Later in the street, after the mandatory kebab, my friend stopped a man walking past us, and I rapidly realized that it was a (barely recognizable) member of the band. I, as is custom, put my foot in it, asking if he was the drummer…turns out he was the lead singer I had just spent 2 hours watching, he took it jokingly and said the drummer was somewhere else with his girlfriend, and wished me luck breaking them up – he’d tried.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable night by a band that goes a long way to redefining music (and the youth who listen to it) in the Middle East. Mashrou’ Leila were the first Middle Eastern artist to get a Rolling Stones cover and their music is accessible, passionate, political and, most importantly, good. To see a cultural export from the Middle East making waves in the West, rather than the other way round was empowering. It sounds silly but it made me proud to be an Arab. It demonstrated to me that the Arab youth can be innovative and original, using our complex and multi-faceted culture and history to create something beautiful and identifiable.