The great thing about independent music is the freedom to carve out a unique musical path, especially if the carving happens in a quite rigid Arab musical landscape. Here we have a Lebanese band, consisting of 7 musicians (Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges, Hamed Sinno, Omaya Malaeb, Andre Chedid, Firas Abou Fakher and Ibrahim Badr) extracting their experiences and life stories into a more ‘truthful’ version of what Music could be, especially in their region.
A five year project that started over-night (Mashrou-leila) in Beirut (year 2008) and which sharpens the edges of strong sounds. Topics breaking the typical oriental images and bringing out a more realistic narrative, including many different love affairs, clear political statements and a conversation with a cabdriver. Mashrou’ Leila played on 30 March in De Centrale in Ghent, Belgium, as part of the 2014 Eye on Palestine festival. The band visited Belgium for the first time and to welcome them, al.arte.magazine interviewed the singer Hamed Sinno beforehand. He spoke to us, live from Hamra in the well-known Café de Prague.
As the main creator behind the lyrics you must have several sources of inspiration, don’t you?
I read a lot of poetry and it definitely helps to put down your own writing by being inspired by other writers. My preference goes out to poetry that is concise and that isn’t too descriptive.
All the lyrics are written in Arabic. Was it a conscious decision to choose Arabic over English?
When we were young we used to explore our social belonging and identities. You try to find out what it means to be Arab, what it means to have the skin colour you have.
And the language on its own is so fundamental in this whole process of discovering yourself. Ironically we, as a band, never really listened to any Arabic music while growing up. We would graduate from our schools without really speaking proper Arabic. So we choose the Arabic language on purpose at the beginning of our music career. It turned out to be more ideological then we expected it to be. This language filled up a certain gap and helped us to appreciate the language and its sensitivity that comes with it.
Mashrou’ Leila’s music has been referred as being the ‘new genre’ that is expanding the view of Arabic music. Would you consider the band’s music Arabic?
As you must know there is a very superficial view of what Arabic music is and can be. And this has to be addressed since it can be very problematic for the image that we send out to the listeners. Frankly, calling it that way already implies that ‘this music’ should sound in a certain way for it to be Arabic. Being Arabic is an ethnic identity not a genre. And in a way it limits us as musicians to broaden our repertoire and consider anything as ‘Arabic music’.
(laughs) so we luckily don’t produce any traditional, oriental Arabic music. But we are not the first since many have preceded us since the thirties. But still today, in our regions we have to fight the critics who have a strong definition of what Arabs should be playing.
Since the uprisings in the Middle East, most people tend to relate the numerous cultural and art projects to anything that is political. In how far is your band involved with political activism?
Frankly, we are a bunch of musicians who try to make music and have fun. We never intended to be in any way related to a political status quo. There is no doubt that most of our experiences have been shaped by many political dimensions in our region. Our music is really about each individual in our band. There is no right or wrong way of doing it. At the end of the day we try to be a music group composing music in a theatre. And of course we tap on any source that we have access to. This can result in shared similar experiences amongst us, including the public affairs of our country. But we write about so many different common subjects such as our love life and having parties. But in the end, our priority always goes to producing music.
How do you look back on the evolution of the band and producing three albums (Mashrou’ Leila, El Hal Romancy, Raasuk) in the last 5 years?
I wouldn’t use the word growing since that would give the impression that there is an end goal. But we definitely have made a lot of changes in these past five years. During the first album we were introduced to each other as starting musicians. So we were also still learning how to write lyrics and music. If you listen to the album you will also notice more solo’s then in the last two albums.
Especially the third album shows a maturity of the band, being more cohesive that is. With Raasuk (They Choreographed You) we have also focused more on general compositions and the lyrics have more performativity. By now we are all getting more comfortable as a band even though our relationships can be very intense. But there is still a long way to go.
How do you feel about becoming a (unwanted) public figure?
I never had the intention to be a spokesman in regards to my sexuality and the whole gender paradigm. Even when people say that the band is representing a generation or something, it always makes me very uncomfortable. Because its really not what we are set to do. We are just making our music. And the responsibility that goes along with it is very delicate, because it goes hand in hand with people’s expectations that might not go along with what I would like to do. With regard to my sexuality, it was very important while I was growing up that I had an outspoken public figure. A person I could relate or look up to. That’s why I liked certain European and American films that would implement characters that were gay. In that way I had the possibility to identify with certain struggles, romance and LGBT activism. And a lot of time this would be tapped out in the mainstream film industry, especially here in Lebanon. The only way you would see ‘these characters’ was either to make fun of them or to scandalize them. A very dangerous approach since it results in isolating the LGBT members in society even more.
So with this background, it was very important for me to be honest and to put it out there for people to see. And it’s about time more people do this; otherwise we will have another generation of LGBT people who can’t identify themselves. Coming out and being clear with yourself and your sexuality can be a lonesome and draining process. That’s why for example suicide numbers are higher with gay teens then heterosexual teens. Unless you find yourself more connected to a broader public that shares similar experiences, which in turn will create a demand for their rights and social change. So this type of camaraderie is really important to me.
And sometimes it’s a pity because this subject can sometimes overshadow all of what we do. Even though we are five band members who are writing and making music about everything.
Mashrou’ Leila dodged the record companies successfully especially with the last album. How does the band survive without a record label?
“Help us demand that the music industry stop remanufacturing the same pop stars with different names. Help us demand better art. Help us demand diverse representation in our cultural environment. Help us force the industry to listen to the people. Help us not get choreographed. Help us Occupy Arab Pop… Make sure you tell the world change is coming, and it doesn’t have implants.”
We are actually finalizing the process to sign our last album to a European label for the European release of the album. I can’t go more into detail but for the near future that is what will happen. This will make our life’s a lot easier.
Until now we have done crowd funding to support the last albums. So in that way we had a lot of freedom in making music the way we want. So there is nobody who can twist our music to something that should ‘sound nice’. We feared labels mainly for the pressure of having to change our ideas about who we are and what we would like to represent. There are not a lot of labels in the region. And those that are present in our region have a very pop-culture focused look on music. And these labels like a certain formula, a certain kind of image and style. Usually the emphasis is on a ‘single star’ industry. So these labels are just not very equipped to deal with bands. The Middle East is known for this type of systematic music where you have one rising star or diva. And so signing with them would have forced us in changing our public image and make us compromise a lot.
What do you enjoy the most as the lead singer of the band?
I love to tour the world with the band and most of all I love to be on stage, more than anything else. So we still would like to perform more, have a busier touring schedule and have more income to support more of our music projects. Next to all of this we have our individual lives and still in the process of getting our master’s degrees. So all of this keeps us grounded but at the same time makes us enjoy what we do.