The influential Beirut-based band brought the party to the Sinclair, led by poised singer Hamed Sinno’s charm and talent.

9/13/18 – The Sinclair

Playing a show hasn’t been easy for Mashrou’ Leila since seven people were arrested following their show in Cairo for waving rainbow-colored flags. During an interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Hamed Sinno addressed the arrests: “A big part of [what we do] is about trying to create sort of a cultural roster for people to identify with and feel emboldened by. And it felt like for a few days, we had to doubt whether we were actually doing that, or if we were just feeding the trolls.” The cultural roster Sinno refers to involves various issues addressed in the band’s songs. The band often writes about Middle Eastern culture, and Sinno in particular writes lyrics about his experience of belonging to and identifying with the queer community in Beirut.

Despite Sinno’s concerns and the fact he only sings in Arabic—hence, all lyrics in this article are translated from Arabic—the band’s following seems larger than ever, proven by a sold-out show at The Sinclair. When Sinno asked later in the show how many Arabic speakers were present, the cheers were more boisterous than usual at a Boston show. However, the audience came from all backgrounds—perhaps invited by friends or drawn by the band’s accessible blend of indie rock and dance music.

Sinno arrived onstage to mass ovation after the rest of the band—violinist Haig Papazian, drummer Carl Gerges, bassist Ibrahim Badr, and keyboardist Firas Abou Fakher—took their places. He was clad in a black and silver striped robe, which he removed periodically throughout the show to reveal a sleeveless black shirt in order to cool down. He danced gracefully throughout the band’s set, energizing the crowd and elevating the indelibly groovy nature of the band’s music.

 

 

The band first played “Are You Still Certain,” their collaboration with the band Hercules and Love Affair—a group who have clearly influenced Mashrou’ Leila’s sound. Sinno’s voice evoked Hercules’ former lead singer Anohni at points. Over a bass line evocative of Euro disco culture and synths reminiscent of “Billie Jean” against a red backdrop, Sinno interrogated repeatedly through the song’s chorus: “Hey you / Tell me, are you still certain / Do you still know the truth?” Grave lyrics and appealing dance beats often converged during the set, posing the question of whether the band’s sonic approach was a triumphant message over their anxieties—or an attempt to distract themselves.

A prime example of this dissonance was “Tayf (Ghost),” the band’s lament over a shut-down Beirut club that Sinno described as “[not] very great, but it was one of a few safe spaces for queer people in Beirut.” Sinno refused to understate the gravity of the song, lightly admonishing an over-excited fan who asked him to state the club’s name—and who clearly knew it—with a bemused, “I’m getting to it!” The song showcased the band at their best, building on Papazian’s poignant violin, followed by Gerges drum beat and Badr’s bassline, to which Fakher’s moody keyboard chords were added. Papazian’s violin made the song sound like a more rhythmic and livelier version of The Cure’s “Lovesong” with haunting background vocals. Sinno’s voice soared on the indignant chorus: “The mushrooms have started to grow / Tomorrow we inherit the earth.” On “Tayf (Ghost),” Mashrou’ Leila proved that they made more than catchy tunes—they made timeless songs capable of breaking through cultural and linguistic barriers.

Other highlights included the audience sing-along, “Djin,” and one of the night’s few ballads, “Shim El Yasmine.” On “Djin,” a tribute to gin and its effects, Sinno encouraged the audience to croon along to a haunting melody during the chorus, which resembled the old African American folk song, “Wade in the Water.” The melodic resemblance, lyrics, and choral component of the song (which Sinno taught the audience before playing it) intimated the band’s association between a well-spent night out and a collective spiritual experience. Sinno sang in one verse, “Liver baptized in gin, / I dance to ward off the djin.” The allusion to the djin, a shapeshifting spirit capable of supernatural influence over humans in Muslim tradition, further underlined the relationship between the states of inebriation and religious ecstasy.

“Shim El Yasmine” on the other hand had opposite sonic intentions, beginning with an acoustic guitar and flowing throughout with Sinno’s somber, yet goosebump-raising voice. Sinno explained, “This song is about the first guy I ever really fell for. [T]his song is about having your heart destroyed by someone.” Despite the Arabic lyrics, one could witness the pain in Sinno’s performance, as he sang, whistled, and eventually throat-sang without a microphone. Sinno walked to the edge of the stage and holding his hand to his throat, riffed in vibrato that only those closest to the stage could hear. For those who could hear his singing, it was a uniquely intimate experience.

Although Mashrou’ Leila’s intention to empower those who identify with their art might lead to painful consequences such as those in Cairo, the band demonstrated the redemptive value of honesty, vulnerability, and returning to what one loves. Sinno mentioned before singing “Falkyakon” that while this most recent tour had been fun so far, the band at one point in their career had felt the weight of their growing responsibilities. The song came out of “the end of a really difficult period-–when you decide to get off your couch and get your life together.” Through the difficulties of life, Sinno sang, “Whatever will be, just may be, I’ll still be / Standing here singing this melody.”

 

 

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