Though it’s past noon when I called up Hamed Sinno, lead vocalist of Lebanon’s Mashrou Leila, he admits he is only just beginning his day.

Perhaps Sinno’s late start should come as no surprise. After all, the band name was inspired by the late nights during which the quintet was formed: it was an overnight project, or “Mashrou Layle.” However, when the jam sessions transformed into a serious endeavor the band changed their moniker to “Mashrou Leila,” a play on the word for “night” and a feminine name. Leila is like the “Arab Juliet;” it contains romantic connotations—which feels fitting, considering the romantic subject matter of many of Mashrou Leila’s songs.

The band has come a long way since their formative days at American University of Beirut. Mashrou Leila is comprised of Hamed Sinno (lead singer), Haig Papazian (violinist), Firas Abou Fakher (guitarist), Carl Gerges (drums), and Ibrahim Badr (bass guitar). Their sound and style has evolved a lot since their 2010 debut, they’ve landed several profiles by major Western media outlets, and they’ve stirred plenty of controversy thanks to the courage of Sinno, who is very open about his sexuality.

The members of Mashrou Leila will relive their beginnings as they come together once again for a university workshop this month—this time not as students but as teachers. The band will lead a workshop at New York University titled “The Great Gig in the Sky: Imagining the Soundtrack to Utopia.”

“Basically, we’re gonna try to get students to think about the limitations and advantages of using music as a tool for social and political change,” says Sinno. The NYU students will have to invent a fictitious concert that changes the world, and conceive a frenzy of media content that would surround it: a flurry of music reviews, soundbites, video interviews, poster boards and more. “It’s sort of like they are coloring outside the lines of the music itself, based on what sort of impact they want that music to have,” explains Sinno.

While Sinno expresses his doubts over the power of music (“I’m quite cynical about music’s ability to change things outside of representation”) he is making an active effort to reframe the queer narratives in his music, namely the common trope of the tragic queer story.

“I think with the last album we kind of made it a point to write a song about triumph, because I just got so sick of feeling like even I was part of perpetuating that narrative of the necessarily tragic sort of conclusions of our lives,” Sinno says.

As we talk about some of the favorable changes in Western media and the lack of positive narratives in Middle East film and literature surrounding non-normative sexuality or non-normative gender expression, I ask Sinno whether these differences are also ones they experience as they tour from country to country.

While Mashrou Leila has been banned from countries in the past and has performed in plenty more that are hostile of their identities, Sinno finds that the concert space is a protective bubble of sorts. “The concert itself is in its own way sort of autonomous. The politics of a concert are defined by the fact that, you know, five bodies are amplified and get to have dominance over the sonic base that a bajillion other bodies are occupying in the audience,” explains Sinno.  

“It doesn’t feel like the kind of interaction that seeps in the surrounding cultural practices of a country or whatever, as much as literally being in that concert hall… In a really weird way I feel like—maybe inadvertently or maybe because of the discourse around the band’s music or what it comes to represent for some people—the concert hall itself often feels like a really, really, really safe place for the band and for everyone involved,” he says.

Sinno’s queer identity isn’t the only reason why the band might come under attack, and the band has had to take precautions to ensure the safety of their fans within the walls of the concert venue. “In the States, for example, the issue wasn’t about sexuality as much as it was about race,” he says, as he explains how the band had to implement metal detectors as a security measure. A hall full of queer, brown bodies is an obvious target for hate crimes.

The music of Mashrou Leila is already inherently a giant bullseye. At the center are the political topics the songs tackle, but then there are the outer rings that surround it: the Arabic lyrics and the obvious Middle Eastern influences in the melodies of Papazian’s violin strokes and the operatic vibrato style of Sinno’s vocals.

Though their most recent album Ibn El Leil departs from the more traditional sounds and the grittier vocals (further politicized by the fact that they are shouted through a megaphone on their 2009 debut and while performed onstage), it simply displaces that bullseye target and moves the energy to a different setting: the night club.

Today, Mashrou Leila’s sound has evolved into what Sinno described as feeling “like the dancey melancholia of that riff in Love Will Tear Us Apart without sounding like that.” Gone are the samples of street market chatter and the sweeping bow strokes of the mourning violin. In their place are electrifying synths and deep, rib-shaking bass beats. This evolution is also reflected in their album art: the DIY cover art of Mashrou Leila has been replaced with vibrant neon colors, a 3D printed hyena mask, and hyper-realistic digital rendering.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years and you kind of get bored,” says Sinno. “It takes a certain amount of confidence for an indie band to say, alright, we’re ready for a dance album, and I think that’s more than anything else what happened with the last album. Feeling a lot more comfortable with trying to play with a sound that wasn’t really expected of us to play with, and [we] just wanted to have fun with it without overthinking how it would resonate with people.”

Previously, Sinno had created the artwork for their albums, but with Ibn El Leil, the band was on the road and too busy to devote the necessary time. Instead, they teamed up with Leo Burnett, an advertising agency with a Beirut office, where Sinno had previously worked as an apprentice. A look at the Behance project detailing the process of creating the album artwork—from the specialized calligraphy that visually reflects the manner in which Sinno sings the songs to the 3D printing of the mask that hides and adorns the figure of the front cover—reveals the breadth of the visual presence the band crafted.

“It was all sort of outsourced for the first time. I think that’s a big part of why it’s so polished,” Sinno notes. “We had one person do the illustrations, we had another person do the calligraphy work, we had another person do the 3D rendering for the cover and the mask, and then we 3D printed the mask…in the past I would do things on my own, and obviously I can’t do all of that as well as specialized people would be able to.”

Perhaps that, too, is a symptom of the band’s growth. After all, it’s not easy to involve others when building and shaping your artistic vision.

Collaboration comes in other forms, too: Mashrou Leila’s place in the music world has offered them a platform for putting the issues they hold close to heart under the spotlight as well as an opportunity to amplify the voices of others. And though the band was praised for their recent work with female director Jessy Moussallem for the music video for “Roman,” Sinno remains cautious when giving voice to the struggles of others: “Of course I feel like I would like to use the platform that I’ve been given as thoroughly and intentionally as possible to try to make the world a better place… but at the same time there’s a question of agency… I don’t want to speak for other people’s struggles.”

He elaborates, but not before pausing to carefully choose his words: “It’s always ok to talk about what we have struggled. But I think from experience, talking about the stuff we’ve experienced and how we try to go about it… a lot of the times that ends up being quite universal.” And perhaps, those experiences feel even more ubiquitous when they are expressed in the form of music, when triumph shines with the sounds of horns, longing is woven into the quiver of strings, and agony is felt in Sinno’s howl.

Catch Mashrou Leila perform live on Sunday, October 20th at the Sinclair, and read our review of the band’s last Boston performance at the Middle East.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.