Photos by the author
It’s about time Mashrou’ Leila made it to the United States. Despite their massive fan base throughout the Middle East, despite international praise for their advocacy of human rights, and despite selling out arenas and gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, the Lebanese rock band had never set foot on an American stage until two weeks ago. After playing shows in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the band unsurprisingly sold out New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge for their final US performance. “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” frontman Hamed Sinno shared on stage, “but, you know, there’s national security, and we’re brown people.”
Mashrou’ Leila have never been shy about taking political stances, and each of their three albums has injected social taboos into a moralistic media. Their genesis was an open invitation in 2008 to musicians on campus at the American University of Beirut looking to vent about college life and Lebanese politics. But by 2010, I was hearing their tracks played at bars in Jordan—their first album taught me all the Arabic curse words I didn’t learn in class. Sinno’s candid lyrics about civil rights made them no stranger to controversy, and the band have long been credited with storming through the conservative barricade present in the Arab music industry to bring previously hushed topics like homosexuality into the forefront. Blending dance beats and punk riffs with Haig Papazian’s classical violin in a way that never feels disjointed, the music provides the perfect foundation for Sinno’s vibrato. That voice reaches new depths when sung into a megaphone, as Sinno often did on their first album, a technique that made the band sound like they were recording from a protest.
But even with megaphones, there’s a certain intimacy in their music. As opposed to singing only in classical Arabic, Hamed often uses a Lebanese dialect that makes his lyrics feel like he’s having a real conversation with you, speaking candidly about love, sex, politics, and society the way he would over drinks. It’s a type of intimacy that the 700-person (Le) Poisson Rouge houses well, and the night captured that vibe that we were all just hanging out and shooting the shit about Lebanese politics and what not. With audience members a few drinks in and toasts being made on stage, the mood would seamlessly shift from reflections on exes and broken promises to dancing and flirting. Everyone sang along to “Imm el Jacket” as though we were all sitting around an old record player. We learned about Sinno’s douchebag of an ex but then toasted to what a great love song he inspired in “Shim el Yasmine.”
Deepening the intimate conversation, Sinno took a census. When he asked the audience, “How many of you are from the Arab World?” he was met with thunderous yelling. Then he asked how many were not, and, while roughly the same amount of people could have responded, all we mustered was a bashful, half-hearted applause. It’s not exactly something to cheer about, especially when it took this long to get Mashrou’ Leila to play here.
On Saturday, they made up for lost time. With founding members Omaya Malaeb and Andre Chedid no longer part of the roster, and in light of massive political changes since the band's beginning, they needed to catch us up on a lot. Sinno prefaced “Wa Nueid” (“And We Repeat”) with a somber reflection. “We wrote this back when we were still optimistic.” In a previous interview for Noisey, the band told me that this song, which was written in the wake of Arab Spring, was their favorite on the album Raasuk: “We were trying to achieve the mythical patience and determination that Sisyphus portrays in legend, and the immense futility that of expecting different results from the same actions again and again and again.” But before the battle cry began, Sinno had to update us on his feelings for the song now. Having expected different results after Arab Spring, the song has become bittersweet for band.
But don’t think for a second that the night was a downer. Melancholy odes like “Fasateen” got their respect, but like any conversation with an old friend, the band gave us the sad news with hopeful, upbeat endings, creating a bittersweet dance party. While the crowd danced to “Lil Watan,” Hamed used the song to rail against apathy in Lebanon. Papazian’s razor sharp violin cuts through “Raksit Leila,” and the band unleashed probably the greatest cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” ever performed, in Arabic, with plenty of the gyration the song calls for. Hamed called it an “excuse to get slutty,” which is exactly what people want to hear on Halloween.
Closing their first set with “Im Bimbillah,” Mashrou’ Leila came back out for an encore of three more songs, kicked off by “El Hal Romancy.” Covering the best from their last three albums and indulging one song from their upcoming album Ibn el Leil, the band gave New York a glimpse of what we’ve been missing for the last six years. Mashrou' Leila has been changing the discourse in Arabic for a long time, and the crowd at (Le) Poisson Rouge were happy to bring that conversation to the United States. You don’t have to speak Arabic to love this band and their music. As Sinno advised “If you don’t know the lyrics, just fucking dance, man.”
Mary von Aue is a writer and editor living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.