June 24, 2016 by ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS • When we invited the band Mashrou' Leila to come play at the Tiny Desk, we couldn't have foreseen the timing.
The group arrived at our office the morning after the horrific June 12 shootings in Orlando at the gay nightclub Pulse. We were all collectively reeling from the news, and for this rock band from Beirut, Lebanon, the attack hung very heavily.
Mashrou' Leila is fronted by singer and lyricist Hamed Sinno, along with violinist Haig Papazian, keyboardist and guitarist Firas Abou Fakher, Ibrahim Badr on bass and drummer Carl Gerges: five young Beirutis whose family backgrounds reflect Lebanon's religious diversity.
Sinno is openly gay, and Mashrou' Leila is well acquainted with the targeting of LGBT people. The band has faced condemnation, bans and threats in its home region, including some from both Christian and Muslim sources, for what it calls "our political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom." And yet, when Mashrou' Leila performs in the U.S., its members are often tasked with representing the Middle East as a whole, being still one of the few Arab rock bands to book a North American tour.
After the attack on Pulse, the members of Mashrou' Leila decided to open their Tiny Desk set with "Maghawir" (Commandos), a song Sinno wrote in response to two nightclub shootings in Beirut — a tragic parallel to what happened in Orlando. In the Beirut incidents, which took place within a week of each other, two of the young victims were out celebrating their respective birthdays. "Maghawir" is a checklist of sorts about how to spend a birthday clubbing in the band's home city, but also a running commentary about machismo and the idea that big guns make big men.
"All the boys become men / Soldiers in the capital of the night," Sinno sings. "Shoop, shoop, shot you down ... We were just all together, painting the town / Where'd you disappear?" It was a terrible, and terribly fitting, response to the Florida shootings.
In all of its songs, Mashrou' Leila creates densely knotted wordplay; even the band's name has layers of meaning and resonance. The most common translation of "Mashrou' Leila" is "The Night Project," which tips to the group's beginnings back in 2008 in sessions at the American University of Beirut. But Leila is also the name of the protagonist in one of Arabic literature's most famous tales, the tragic love story of Leila and Majnun, a couple somewhat akin to Romeo and Juliet. Considering Mashrou' Leila's hyper-literary bent, it's hard not to hear that evocation.
In the second song, "Kalaam" (S/He), Sinno dives deep into the relationships between language and gender, and how language shapes perception and identity: "They wrote the country's borders upon my body, upon your body / In flesh-ligatured word / My word upon your word, as my body upon your body / Flesh-conjugated words." (The band has posted its own full English translations of these songs online.)
The title of the third song in Mashrou' Leila's set, "Djin," is a perfect distillation of that linguistic playfulness. In pre-Islamic Arabia and later in Islamic theology and texts, a djin (or jinn) is a supernatural creature; but here, Sinno also means gin, as in the alcoholic drink. "Liver baptized in gin," Sinno sings, "I dance to ward off the djin."
But you don't have to speak a word of Arabic, or get Mashrou' Leila's cerebral references, to appreciate its songs: deeply layered, darkly textured and sonically innovative. And sometimes, as Sinno says, the band's songs "are just about getting really messed up at a bar."
Ibn El Leil (Son Of The Night) is available now
Producers: Anastasia Tsioulcas, Niki Walker; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Niki Walker, Claire Hannah Collins, Kara Frame; Production Assistant: Sophie Kemp; Photo: Ruby Wallau/NPR.