There are more than a handful of strong artists from Lebanon who give the established alternative music scene in the country (and its capital city, Beirut) a global name. The majority of these artists release songs exclusively in Arabic and push the boundaries on the continually evolving Arab identity. “Most Arab youths live in an intersectional socio-cultural experience,” El Rass, a hip hop artist from Tripoli, told The New Arab: “Art…creates fields of movement that break social barriers.” These musicians came of age during the civil war that resulted in the death or displacement of large numbers of the Lebanese population and that birthed a generation seeking to define itself. As Zeid Hamdan, one half of alternative band Soapkills, said in an interview with Bidoun magazine, “We are all lost without an identity — and without any knowledge of our history.”
There is, consequently, an effort among Lebanese alternative musicians to maintain a strong connection to place through language and culture, that can be heard in the blending of sounds and influences in the music coming out of the country and the peninsula. Mashrou’ Leila, an alternative group that formed about ten years ago, and their most recent album, Ibn el Leil, represent that push and pull that has positioned the band as a powerful voice that moves both culture and music forward.
Mashrou’ Leila are one of the most talked about musical groups hailing from Lebanon of late, and with good reason. They have been commercially successful in the Arab world, as well as among audiences in Europe and the U.S., and have been called the “voice of the Middle East” and the “soundtrack to the Arab Spring” (a series of political movements/protests across North Africa and the Arabian peninsula that spanned the mid 2000s). Those heavy titles come with the territory of being an alternative band in a conservative region. In an interview with Khaleejesque, a magazine from Kuwait, frontman Hamed Sinno said,
“It’s very rare to come across people who are willing to take [Mashrou’ Leila] out of context and listen to us as a band, not as an Arab band …Westerners [may] think the music is important because it’s Lebanese or because of your sexuality” (Sinno is openly gay and the group often speaks about LGBTQ rights). “
This limited perspective can be a frustrating for anyone, artist or otherwise, who finds themselves as an unintended “voice of the people,” but for groups like Mashrou’ Leila, there’s no escaping it — unless they adjust their message to fit the demands of governments and music corporations alike. In order “to bypass censorship and the control of a record company,” the group chose to crowdfund their 2013 album, Raasuk (theguardian). Because of this, Mashrou’ Leila was able to record many songs with political messages; the tracks about love and relationships, too, often deal with gender and sexuality. Through years of pushback, the band has continued digging into cultural critique and controversy — and the pushback has been real. They were banned from performing in Amman, Jordan, and many of their concert attendees were arrested at a show in Egypt after raising a rainbow flag, the symbol of the gay community (rollingstone).
On both Raasuk and their latest release, Ibn el Leil, from 2015, Mashrou’ Leila press into themes of gender, sexuality, Lebanese politics, and Arab society. The New Yorker describes the most recent album as “a departure from the band’s earlier material, combining slippery bass grooves with lush, cinematic synths and Papazian’s haunting violin melodies. It’s a sound reminiscent of the E.D.M. playlists of Beirut’s famous night-life scene.” All the group’s albums are outside the norm of Arab pop, with influences from rock and electronic music, but share commonalities with the work of other Lebanese alternative artists like Yasmine Hamdan, who blend modern influences with traditional Middle Eastern sounds.
Ibn el Leil is an even further dive into the alternative space that the band’s earlier material stepped into, although releases like their self-titled album in 2010 held much more strongly to classic Arabic influences. The playlist below shows the progression of more traditional to more alternative (with the most traditional appearing first), via classic Lebanese musicians, like Wadih El Safi, Samira Tawfik, and Sabah, followed by modern artists, including Mashrou’ Leila, Yasmine Hamdan, and Tania Saleh.
Originally published at www.theintersection.co.