Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila: How the “Night Project” Came to Light (Part 1 of 2)
My friend Serene is from Lebanon. We used to work together in Chicago. When she moved back home (between Cairo and Beirut), we stayed in touch through Facebook. This summer, she recommended I check out a Lebanese band called Mashrou’ Leila. They’ve been courting the East for the past eight years. Now, the West is becoming enamored with them. I had to find out why. So, I chronicled my international voyage to get to know Mashrou’ Leila from the comfort of my home, with laptop on thighs and cup of coffee by my side.
In searching for one of the band’s most popular tracks on iTunes, I came across a song called “Fasateen” (meaning “dresses”). And so it began… An acoustic guitar transported me…somewhere. I’m not sure where. The groove was seductive. A man’s voice offered a lyrical hook I couldn’t understand because he was singing in Arabic. But when I used my finger to map out the jagged array of notes he was singing, I found myself tracing EKG wave-forms into the air. The song is a heartbeat with attitude. A violin traipsed behind the soft, lilting voice with a second, alluring melodic hook. Between the vocals and the violin, I was spellbound. Then there was the video.
To date, there’s over 2 million hits for the “Fasateen” video on YouTube: A man wearing a tattered wedding dress makes a failed tee-pee out of spread apart knees and shins. Haphazardly, he brushes his his thorny, 5 o’clock shadow with rouge. Nuptial symbols shared by the East and West are abolished: a wedding cake is toppled, a hunting knife rips at the tool from his wedding dress, bride and groom cake toppers are swapped out and the honeymoon bed is slaughtered. Let those plucked feathers fly again…
Go to iTunes.
Add song to Playlist: Midsummer’s Night Dream mix.
Commence research into the music and previous interviews with the band.
Enter Facebook Messenger.
Press microphone and begin rambling…
Me: Ok. Now I’m excited. These guys…Mashrou’ Leila…or, Mashrou-3 Leila…they’re really, really good. What’s the meaning behind the name?
Serene: Hello, my friend! So good to hear your voice and so glad you love the band. Yes, the name can be translated in two ways since the word Mashrou3 means ‘project’ and Leila can either refer to a girl’s name or a night. So it could mean a ‘night project’ or ‘Leila’s project.’
Me: And there’s a number in the name? I mean, I’m used to numbers in band names but does this have something to do with Arabic?
Ellipses ripple in front of me.
Serene: Yesssss! Because we have letters in Arabic that do not exist in the English alphabet. We have ingeniously started using numbers for the letters that are not found in the English alphabet. Mind you, this was created for texting purposes only. Some people use these numbers in normal writing which is obviously a big no-no. So, the number 3 is the letter “Aain” which is a guttural sound that most Westerners can’t pronounce.
Me: I saw the video for “Fasateen” where the guy’s cutting up a wedding dress. I assume they support gay rights?
Serene: The lead singer is Hamed Sinno. And, yes, he’s gay. He’s Muslim so it’s even more of a taboo to come out as gay. He calls himself the matriarch of the band. This is the first band [in Lebanon] to have an openly gay lead singer who writes songs about wanting to marry his lover.
Me: That’s very cool.
Hop off Facebook Messenger
Google: Mashrou’ Leila Official Website
Click on link.
Email band to request interview for MusicMakesYouThink.com
Facebook alerts me to a new voice message from Serene.
Return to Facebook Messenger.
Serene: Here’s the interesting thing about Mashrou3 [she pronounces it using the guttural sound]. Hamed’s voice is considered to be very close to what Kurt Cobain used to do during grunge. The way Hamed plays with his words, he makes it sound Western but he’s actually singing in Arabic.
Me: Could you give an example of how Hamed plays with his words or his voice?
Serene: I’m not sure I can do that because it’s very hard to translate. It’s more like a sound. It’s Oriental fused with Western vibes. (Note: To Westerners, “Oriental” means anything pertaining to Asian countries, however, in this context it’s meant to mean anything Arab).
Me: When I think of “grunge,” I think of a shredded guitar sound, loud drums and a harsh, raspy voice. I don’t think of lyrics being grungy but maybe you’re hearing something that I’m too close to.
Serene: You’re right about the grunge thing. So, let me put it this way: Usually Lebanese and Arab singers are very polished. Their voices are very polished. But Hamed manipulates his voice. His voice is gravely to our ears.
Me: Mashrou’ Leila seems to have a Western appeal. I saw that they did a cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as well as a Gorrilaz’s “Clint Eastwood” — both in Arabic. And, I read that they studied at American University of Beirut [Also known as AUB, the top university in Lebanon]. So, maybe there’s some American influence there?
Serene: Yes, definitely there’s an American influence. I graduated from there too. AUB is a miniature Lebanon so you’ll find the Westernized, open-minded kids with the veiled kids with the Frenchie crowd and some foreigners here and there.
Serene: Just some background…Any person in Lebanon speaks at least two languages. You either speak Arabic and English or Arabic and French or all three of them. And the reason why is, of course, colonialism [Lebanon was a French colony from 1920-1943]. And, we had an American presence during the opening of the American schools. So, if you’re a kid in Lebanon, you have a choice of going to a French school or an English school like the American one I went to. So, the “Frenchie kids” are Lebanese kids who “act French” and go to the French schools. They speak French and their references are European. Whereas, kids like me, who studied in American schools tend to make American references. Not all the time. Just sometimes. Lebanese sometimes think they’re French or American or British or something…but, you know, we’re actually just Lebanese [chuckles]. It’s not that we don’t know who we are, it’s just that we’re probably more open to other cultures than most countries. Gotta go pick up my son from school now.
We both exit Facebook Messenger.
I can’t stop thinking about the band so I journal this as if I’m in the middle of writing an article:
Given Mashrou’ Leila’s cultural background and education, the Lebanese band had a unique choice many artists can’t make. They could’ve shaped their music around the English language (or, perhaps, even French). But instead, their music is written and sung in Arabic. And that decision has essentially sealed the fate of their musical career. The Arabic culture touches everything from the music that cloaks each lyric they write to the clothes and dances featured on stage to the album cover art. But being the non-conformists they’re known to be, Mashrou’ Leila refuses to be a slave to their own native language. Sinno has been known to slur his Arabic. His unconventional singing has created both confusion and intrigue among Arabic listeners. Yet for all of the other non-Arabic speaking fans, there is nothing but sound and performance to absorb. Who knew that selecting a language could have such a huge effect on a band’s entire sound and image? And, again, how many artists have that choice? Crowdfunding, which has been used to produce all three of their independent albums, continues to validate the band’s choice. Whatever it is, Mashrou’ Leila just might be the socio-musical movement both worlds need. That probably sounds cliché. I abhor clichés. But I’m not sure if we’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern band that had the potential to connect with Western audiences especially at a time when that connection is so dire.
Notice from Facebook Messenger
Voice message from Serene…
Serene: By the way, I sent you another link. Mashrou’ is the top selling album on iTunes right now! They even topped Adele! And did I tell you that they had sold out shows in Boston and New York City? And they just launched their new LP at Barbican (Europe’s largest multi-arts venue and home to the London Symphony Orchestra)! Whatever they’re doing, it’s obviously resonating with a lot of people. When I saw their concert in Lebanon, this summer, I swear to you there were young people and old people. I mean old people with white hair and then the LGTB community. Everyone you can imagine. I had my pink hair and my tattoos and I thought I was going to be totally avant-garde. But I totally fit in there. There’s something about them…
Me: Indeed. It’s cool that a job sparked our friendship but Mashrou’ Leila just strengthened it. Be well.
There is something about Mashrou’ Leila. I can’t stop listening to them so I listen to “Marikh” on their new album, Ibn El Leil. And I’m pretty sure this song has just caused a shift within me. Or, at least I can honestly say that I haven’t felt this way since I first listened to Radiohead’s Kid A. Here, now you try it…
How is it that I don’t know the exact words of what Sinno is singing but I’m certain that I’ve been in the space he’s singing about? Serene tells me she knows the lyrics and the backstory of the song but I don’t want to know because….well, I already know.
New message from Mashrou’ Leila.
Firas Abou Fakher (guitarist and keyboardist from Mashrou’ Leila) has agreed to do an interview.
End of Part One…
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For more information, check out the band’s website here.