In the clubs and music venues of Beirut, something big is happening. Mashrou3 Leila, a seven-piece collective with a unique hybrid sound, are leading a new wave of home-grown talent that’s revitalising the local music scene – by capturing the sounds and voices of Arab youth. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie meets them.
In the weeks leading up to the release party for Mashrou3 Leila’s self-titled debut album, the seven members of the band made bets with each other on how many copies they thought they would sell at the concert, which took place in a steel factory on the edge of Beirut last month. The keyboardist, Omaya Malaeb, was by far the most optimistic, wagering 800. Her colleagues played it safer, estimating between 300 and 500. As it turned out, even Malaeb was conservative. In less than an hour, 1,000 fans bought the Mashrou3 Leila album (exhausting the entire run of the first edition), and hundreds more were left empty-handed, wanting their own copies of the band’s nine-track, exuberantly genre-defying CD.
For any local band to lure 1,000 people to a live gig is an achievement in Beirut. The city boasts a population of just 1.5 million, and the audience for home-grown alternative music is dramatically less than that. But the crowd that gathered for Mashrou3 Leila’s album release party was all the more impressive given the fact that the band members, all in their early 20s, have been together for less than two years.
Mashrou3 Leila’s sound is a boisterous combination of different elements of rock, pop, electro, folk, jazz, blues, gypsy swing, Balkan brass, Armenian classical music and tarab, a genre of Arabic song that connotes an emotional engagement leading to a state of ecstasy or transcendence.
The band’s lyrics include bursts of gritty, streetwise Lebanese slang, evocative sociopolitical critique and surrealist imagery that is both inventive and poetic. Some songs appropriate lines from well-known children’s songs and nursery rhymes, investing them with new meaning and tethering them to disturbances and instabilities in Beirut, Lebanon and the larger region. Others delve into the emotional complexities of romance and wrecked relationships. For many young Beirutis, Mashrou3 Leila’s music speaks to them about their lives and circumstances more vibrantly than any other outfit to emerge from the city’s underground music scene in recent years.
Of course, that is not to say that the underground music scene has been unproductive of late. Mashrou3 Leila belongs to what could be considered the third wave of Beirut-based alternative music. The first consisted primarily of the band Soap Kills, which experimented with Arabic interpretations of trip-hop and techno in the 1990s. The second, longer lasting wave involved post-punk and power pop groups such as Scrambled Eggs, Lumi and the New Government, all of whom are still active. The third and most recent wave includes bands such as Mashrou3 Leila and the young hip-hop collective Fareeq al Atrash.
This admittedly simplified lineage runs parallel to, and occasionally intersects with, other musical narratives, such as the development of Beirut’s instrumental free improv scene (populated by the likes of Mazen Kerbaj, Sharif Sehnaoui and Raed Yassin), its experimental electronic music scene (including Tarek Atoui and Jawad Nawfal, also known as Munma) and its remarkably robust history of hard-hitting local hip-hop (from the inimitable Rayess Bek to Kita’youn, Kita’ Beirut and Katibe 5).
Fareeq al Atrash, whose sound is reminiscent of the Philadelphia hip-hop heroes The Roots, really belongs to two local stories at once, that of rock and that of hip-hop. Until now, only the hip-hop side of things has been done exclusively in Arabic. Rock has been more of an English-language effort, in everything from the bands’ logos to their lyrics; even the music tends to borrow more heavily from, say, The Velvet Underground and its latter-day derivatives than anything explicitly Arabic. Fareeq al Atrash and Mashrou3 Leila, by contrast, write everything, down to their liner notes, in Arabic.
Another similarity is that when performing live, both bands pack a veritable crowd of musicians on stage. Previous hip-hop groups in Beirut have appeared with DJs and decks, but rarely, if ever, with strings, brass or a live rhythm section. So in a way, Fareeq al Atrash and Mashrou3 Leila have brought the rock and hip-hop strands closer together. That they’ve done so in Arabic signals an interesting turn in the cultural production coming out of Beirut. And perhaps due to the bonds of a common language, both bands have earned a quick and sizeable fan base in the region, whether through word of mouth or via more viral links to online platforms such as YouTube and MySpace.
In Arabic, Mashrou3 Leila means roughly “a night project” (the “3” indicates the Arabic letter “ayn”). When the band started making music together, they were all students at the American University of Beirut’s faculty of architecture and engineering – five architects, one engineer and one graphic designer. Like architecture students anywhere, those at AUB spend vast amounts of time on projects that are invariably completed overnight and in the early hours of the morning. Because the band considered music a project on a par with architecture, they insisted the word “mashroua” (project) be part of the name. The word for night, “leila”, made sense given their nocturnal habits. It also added a hint of mystery and suggestion. But more importantly, the name tied the band’s musical ambitions to the history and culture of the Arab world.
“It’s a play on words,” says Haig Papazian, the band’s violinist. “Leila means ‘the night’ but at the same time, Leila is this Arabic woman who is everywhere in the literature, in the history, even in the children’s stories and poetry. She’s the equivalent of our Arabic culture in the form of a woman’s character. It’s as if this project belongs to her, not just to us.”
That project started out, modestly enough, as a workshop. Malaeb, Papazian and their classmate Andre Chedid had all been musical as children. Malaeb, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, started learning the piano at the age of six. But her family moved around – to Jordan when she was 13, Lebanon when she was 15 – so she fell out of formal training. When she started university, she started listening seriously to jazz and started playing the piano again.
Papazian, meanwhile, began studying the violin when he was 10. “I started taking lessons in classical and Armenian music. When I got to the second year of my architecture studies, which was the eighth year of my violin studies, both required so much of my time that I knew I had to choose one over the other, but I wanted both.”
Chedid became interested in music a little later, as a teenager watching the TV talent show Studio al Fan and playing guitar in Radiohead-obsessed cover bands. But like Malaeb and Papazian, Chedid was also struggling to balance architecture and music. So together they decided to make the latter a more formalised extra-curricular activity.
They posted flyers in their department at AUB, seeking other musicians to participate in open jam sessions. The workshop would be committed to the creation of original music. No cover versions would be allowed. About a dozen students showed up for the first session in early 2008. But as the term wore on, the number of participants dropped to seven. Consistently joining Malaeb, Papazian and Chedid were the vocalist Hamed Sinno, guitarist Firas Abou Fakher, drummer Carl Gerges and bassist Ibrahim Badr. For their first show together, they were billed in advance as “The Architecture Band”. This was much too dorky for any of them to bear, so they quickly agreed on a new name.
After playing a few promising shows at disparate venues across the city, Mashrou3 Leila did something that few other Beirut-based bands have done: they toured Lebanon, performing not one but several nights in smaller cities such as Sur, Saida, Zahleh, Jounieh and Deir al Ammar in an effort to get out of the capital and test their sound before more unfamiliar audiences (the Beirut crowd for alternative music tends to be the same, no matter who’s playing). They did the same thing in Cairo and Amman before returning to Beirut to get to work on their first album, opting to record with a new studio, B-Root Productions.
Established less than a year ago by Raed al Khazen and Jana Saleh – both of whom attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music and earned a decade’s worth of professional experience in New York – B-Root is a rare thing in Beirut; an artistic initiative with a business plan. As a full sound production house, the company runs parallel commercial and creative tracks. On one hand, Khazen and Saleh do sound design for advertising. On the other, they produce film scores and albums. Mashrou3 Leila is the first band they’ve brought in.
“There’s a limit to the amount of exposure musicians can get in an environment like Lebanon,” says Khazen, “especially in terms of finding their voice. With Mashrou3 Leila, they already had that voice, in raw form. What we felt that we could do was take that raw form and fine-tune it. These guys are all really smart. And they’re stubborn.”
“And they’re seven,” adds Saleh, laughing at the challenge of getting the full band in a room together. “But it was always about them growing, not us dictating. It took a long time for them to adopt us, and a long time for them to trust us. But they’re such a cool band in that they take what you give them. They’re willing to learn, and they’re willing to use what they learn.”
In March 2009, the band breezily won a new music prize sponsored by the local radio station Radio Liban. Suddenly they had a following. People started attending their concerts wearing T-shirts reading “Ana Leila (I Am Leila)”. A full-blown mythology was born.
“You can hear Leila, cascading melts of masculine vocals… suspended within thrusts of violin, beats and bass… through the music, you can hear where Leila has been, in bed sheets, on sidewalks… This is from the band’s official biography, posted on their blog and their MySpace page, and it captures the spirit of Mashrou3 and the notionof the music belonging to someone else, or something more, than just the seven musicians.
“We all have a certain position about Arabic pop music,” says Papazian, “because there is a real problem with this music today. How did we go from [the earthy Egyptian diva] Um Kulthoum to [the saucy but superficial Lebanese pop star] Haifa Wehbe?”
“The pop you see on TV is not really music,” adds Malaeb. “It’s for money and it’s all the same. There’s a huge gap between where the music was, which was a really high place, and where it is now.”
“The quality of the music and the content of the lyrics have really changed,” says Papazian. “Before, people used to sing about everything – their lives, music, religion. Now it’s all about this perfect world where a guy meets a girl and they live happily ever after, or they overcome some challenge to reach eternal happiness. But that’s not reality. That’s not how we live our lives in Beirut. And I don’t think that’s how Arabs elsewhere or anyone anywhere in the world lives their lives. When we write our songs, we want them to be simple, very realistic, very down to earth, based on our experiences, either collectively or individually. I think people who live in other cities, in other parts of the Arab world, they can identify with these experiences.”
Composing lyrics in Arabic offered Mashrou3 Leila the opportunity to explore genres such as tarab, which – in the golden age of Um Kulthoum, Asmahan, Abdel Halim Hafez or Mohammad Abdel Wahab – appropriated the classical maqam, the modal structure, for secular music. It also gave the band a chance to consider even earlier art forms, such as the intellectually daring (and sexually open) conventions of Abassid poetry. But for Hamed Sinno, who pens most the words to Mashrou3 Leila’s songs, writing in Arabic posed challenges as well.
“Because there’s so much politics in the region, we don’t really have our own cultural language. There’s so much coming in from outside,” he says. Literary Arabic is tough because, as opposed to spoken dialects, it’s the language of news and speeches. The problem with formal Arabic is that growing up in the region, you’re always plugged into a news station. So formal Arabic sounds like war. I like the sort of grand language of literature, but I feel that maybe it should be softer. That’s one of the reasons why we used children’s songs but changed some of the lyrics. In some of the songs there’s a story, but others are just about venting. There’s a lot of unresolved angst that surfaced. But we’re good with that. The one thing you’ll find across the Middle East is that we’re good with stories.”
For more on Mashrou3 Leila’s live dates and releases, see http://www.myspace.com/mashrou3leila and http://wissen.dradio.de/index.38.de.html?dram:article_id=762&sid=