Music from the Middle East – Mashrou’ Leila comes to Toronto

*photo credit Raymond Gemayel

As an avid music lover of Egyptian descent, I’ve always had an affinity towards Middle Eastern Music. From Om Khalsoom, Abdel Halim Hafez and Faten Hamama, singers that graced the silver screen in my parents’ childhood, to Amr Diab, Nancy Agram and Elissa, modern pop stars of the Arab world, it’s music that I grew up with, that I still love, and most of all, that I still love discovering. It’s for that reason, and many others, that I’m so excited to have discovered Mashrou’ Leila.

Hailing from Lebanon, Mashou’ Leila is a group of 5 young men (Hamed Sinno on vocals,  Haig Papazian on violin; Carl Gerges on drums; Firas Abou Fakher on keys/guitar and Ibrahim Badr on bass) whose own eclectic musical tastes have served to create a very different, and very interesting style. While the band’s lyrics are in Arabic, their music doesn’t always have that typical Arab sound that you may expect. Elements are there of course, but the music is modern and accessible to a wide audience, regardless of the language they sing in. Rock, pop, electro, even some 80s synth; all these elements find their way into Mashrou Leila’s music, creating what they are calling alternative Arabic music. Their subject matter is at times contreversial, considering their location; songs about  politics, race, religion, LGBT rights and modern Arabic identity all find their way into their passionately performed sets, but that’s just another part of what makes them great – they’re not scared to sing about what matters, and they have a message that their fans need to hear. Check out the band’s song “3 Minutes” below:

Mashrou’ Leila will be bringing their incredible live show to Toronto this Thursday, October 22nd at Lee’s Palace. I got the chance to chat with Hamed from the band ahead of their gig. Take a read below to find out more about what makes Mashou’ Leila who they are.

Tell me a bit about your band, howdid  it form? And tell me about the name, what’s the story behind it, and what does it mean?

We all met in college. We were enrolled in the same department (Architecture and Design) at the American University of Beirut, and found that we had stopped playing music because of how time consuming our majors were. So we started up a music workshop that was initially much bigger (around 15 people), and gradually ended up with our current line-up.

Mashrou Leila basically either means A night’s project, or Leila’s Project (because leila has a double meaning). We chose it because we’d often meet each other int he middle of the night to try and juggle our majors and our musical endeavors. Leila as a name also has all these deep-rooted cultural associations to old arab literature and poetry, and we like the romanticism it added.

I love your sound, and how it combines traditional Arab music with modern influences, from European to North American. Tell me about how these influences come together in your music.

Thanks! Essentially none of it was really a conscious effort to “blend” musical traditions. I think we’re all quite averted to that canonized aspect of contemporary Middle-Eastern music which often makes musicians feel like they have to “blend” traditional Arab influences into other disciplines if they were to get any recognition in those disciplines. But basically we were always just a big band, with a rather democratic approach to composition, and because of that we each ended up throwing something into the mix as we came from pretty diverse musical backgrounds and sensibilities. The only thing that mattered for us was to try and stray away as much as possible from any clear-cut genre. And most importantly, we wanted to make music we could identify with, because most of the stuff we heard in arabic on the radio was just so worn out and conservative that we could never relate.

Your music has been called “the soundtrack to the Arab Spring”, and I can certainly see why – it’s upbeat and hopeful while harkening to Middle Eastern tradition, in a beautiful way. How do you feel about your music being characterized this way? Do you agree?

Tricky question. On one hand we all find it really flattering, but then it’s also just very difficult to overlook how problematic a title like that is. Most often, that title is only slapped onto us by media in the West, and I feel like it somehow fts into a longer, and much more complicated tradition of trying to simplify the situation in the Middle-East. The Arab Spring itself, is essentially a term created by said media, that sought to group very diverse and very complex political events under one umbrella. The middle east is such a ridiculously complicated place, like any other, and is also a rather socially and culturally diverse place, again like any other. So it always feels a bit weird when someone decides that a group of 5 male, middle class, youths, can speak for all that.

Speaking of the Arab Spring and all that surrounds it, what challenges have you faced, both in making music at home, and as a result of the messages and actions your music has inspired?

Nothing too brag-worthy honestly. The occasional death-threat that no one takes seriously, attempts to cancel gigs, which again none of us take seriously, and some hate from certain parts of society (but that’s often strangely gratifying.) In general, i think the listenership in the region has embraced us for the most part, otherwise we wouldn’t tour so much.

Is this your first time touring to North America? How has the response been to your music on this side of the globe?

No it’s not. We played Toronto and Montreal a few times before. The reactions were amazing. I remember the last time we played POP montreal the press was just extremely generous to us, and the crowd was basically ridiculous. It really helps you stay optimistic about having a career in music.

What does the future hold for Mashrou’ Leila?

Hopefully a lot more hard work. We’re currently finalizing our fourth albu which should be launched at the end of November at the Barbican in London. It’s a pretty risky album that we’ve kept incubated for quite some time so I’m really excited about releasing it. We’re also just working on some tour proposals and trying to get decent distribution in Europe and North America. Exciting times 🙂

Our magazine is called Addicted because we want to focus on the positive concept of addiction – loving something so much that you dont want to live without it. What would you say is your positive addiction?

Definitely music. As cheesy as it sounds, music saved me so many times when i was growing up. It gave me a sense of self, and a sense of belonging. At this point it’s also given me a career that allows me to wake up every morning and say I’m doing what I love. So yeah… Music.
Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Addicted Magazine. Her myriad of addictions include music, fashion, travel, technology, boxing and trying to make the world a better place. Nadia is also a feminist, an animal lover, and a neverending dreamer. Keep up with her on social media through @thenadiae.
Nadia Elkharadly