Bops and Bans: Leila’s Ten-Year Dance

Mashrou’ Leila, which translates roughly to the Nighttime Project or The Overnight Project (or perhaps it means Leila’s Poject, with Leila meaning night and also being a popular girl’s name in the Levant) as an ode to all-night jamming (or, as I like to think, a cheeky nod to nighttime “fun”), is a Lebanese indie-rock band that formed in 2008 on the campus of the American University of Beirut. The band is popular (dare I say, considered basic even) amongst the Middle Eastern studies/indieovers’ community in the West since their inception 11 years ago, and have been dubbed “The Arab world’s most influential independent band”. In what could be a popular perspective, there are two main things that make Mashrou’ Leila notable: its lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is a gay man, and it is an indie-rock band whose lyrics are all in Levantine Arabic. 

Part of what makes Mashrou Leila is that they take issues that many artists address – politics, sexuality, religious conservatism, immigration, war, and LGBTQ+ rights, Mashrou’ Leila addresses them through a specifically Middle Eastern perspective. The lead singer, Mamed Sinno, is a gay man of Lebanese and Jordanian heritage, which certainly contributes to some of the controversy surrounding the band: They have a rocky relationship with the Jordanian government, which has repeatedly banned and un-banned them from performing, and in 2017, members of their audience in Cairo, Egypt were arrested for waving a Pride flag. Several of their songs, as well deal with issues of same-sex relationships and sexual self-expression.

The two previously-mentioned aspects of the band that “set it apart” – its gay front man and its Arab perspective, set the band up to be, in my opinion, caught between being defined by what it represents and what is. While a Middle Eastern, Arabic-language band fronted by a gay man is certainly something that challenges perspectives often associated with Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern societies, this band should also be recognized for being a funky group of bop-producing dudes. Their most recent album, The Beirut School, released on March 1 2019 (my birthday!) is mainly a celebration of their whirlwind 10 years together and only contains one original song in the midst of a compilation of older ones. A quick breakdown of my favorite songs from this album:

Shim il Yasmine (the Smell of Jasmine) from the song’s first album Mashrou’ Leila (2009) addresses the difficulty in finding tolerance for same-sex love. To hear these lyrics sung in Arabic was, for me, quite an experience because this song represented sentiments that I hadn’t found expressed in the language growing up. The lamentful, emotion-rich voice of Sinno is excellent here.

Fasateen (Dresses), also from Mashrou’ Leila, addresses the concept, tradition, and pressures of marriage.

Raksit Leila (Leila’s Dance or Nights’ Dance), again from their first album, provides the contrast to the previous two, with a more upbeat feel and lyrics that may not, to many, carry the same urgency or emotional depth that allow especially the talents of the band’s violinist (Haig Papazian) to shine through.

Cavalry, the only original song on the album, in my opinion, serves the simplest function. Smooth and seemingly eighties-influenced, it is an “ode to putting up a fight, even when the odds are stacked against us”, according to the band itself. This seems to encapsulate the political “function” of Mashrou’ Leila’s artistry without letting it overpower the musical talents of these men. It allows the band to reaffirm their commitment to using their platform to support activist causes while not letting it completely define them.

I think that the Beirut School is the perfect album to start with if one is new to this band, given both the timelessness and current importance of its political messages and jammability of its songs.

Zachariah Crutchfield is a senior from Minnesota studying political science and MESAAS. At this very moment is probably somewhere making more coffee and thinking about taking a road trip. 

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