The music that inspired a movement: how Mashrou' Leila became the soundtrack to the Lebanese protests
The influential Lebanese band perform at the Groove on the Grass Festival this weekend
It almost seems as though trouble likes to follow Mashrou’ Leila around. Not long after the Lebanese electro-pop band’s Byblos Festival slot was cancelled after a controversial social media campaign, the band embarked on a successful 10-week North American tour, only to return to a radically different Beirut.
Their plane landed hours before the weeks-old nationwide protests began.
“It took us two hours to get home,” drummer Carl Gerges tells The National before the band’s Groove on the Grass performance tomorrow. “The roads were closed and things were escalating from there.”
It didn’t take long for Gerges to get involved in the ongoing movement. Born and raised in Beirut, he attended various protests across the city as a citizen, only to find the shadow of his band looming large among the neon flares and waving of the national flag at Martyrs’ Square.
“Music played and continues to play a very important role in the protests that are happening as we speak. I mean, at certain areas of the protest it is almost like a rave or one big massive street party,” he says.
“But there were other places where I could hear many of our songs being played on speakers, and that really moved me.”
One track that was omnipresent in the protests was Mashrou’ Leila’s Lil Watan (For the Nation). It is not hard to understand why the song’s sound and lyrics encapsulate the exuberance of the youths who have taken to the streets almost every night of the past few weeks.
“They told you ‘enough preaching, come dance with me for a while’,” frontman Hamed Sinno sings. “Why are you frowning? Come dance with me a while.”
We joined the band to write songs, not political statements. It just ended up becoming that way
Even Gerges is stunned by how well the song’s anti-sectarian message complements the current political mood.
“You have to understand that we wrote that song more than three years ago, but it does discuss everything that is happening right now in Lebanon,” he says. “This is funny and scary at the same time. There are other songs of ours that are being played in areas such as Tripoli. One is called Na’eed (Let’s Repeat), which talks about doing something over and over again until the situation is rectified or the next generation takes up the fight.”
It is no wonder the group have always been met with suspicion from cultural authorities in the Levant. Gerges says the cancellation of their Byblos Festival appearance, after a vicious social media campaign by various religious groups citing their frank lyrics about sexuality, was a gut punch to the band.
He sees a clear correlation between that incident and the Lebanese protests today. Gerges seems almost understanding of the unprecedented anger the group faced back in April, which included death threats. He says Mashrou’ Leila were simply a lightning rod for the festering resentments in Lebanese society which has exploded on the streets today.
“It didn’t take us too long to realise that this was simply more than just about us,” he says. “I mean, we are talking about three weeks of back-to-back coverage of us at that time.
We were on the news every day and there were all these fake stories about us being spread on social media. What was happening was the accumulation of anger and frustration happening in society. It was clearly more than just about our music. People were angry and wanted to lash out, it seems.”
With all that going on, Gerges admits it was a relief to embark on their North American tour, which ended last month. Playing almost every night to a growing international fan base that appreciates their music, first and foremost, gave them the recognition they sorely needed.
It also confirmed that perhaps the group have outgrown the Middle East. With members becoming weary of the constant attention surrounding their provocative lyrics and social justice stances, they have set their sights on taking their music to the world.
This was the reasoning behind their latest release, The Beirut School. Consisting of 11 tracks spanning their five albums and three new songs, the project is the perfect introduction for newcomers.
“I am glad you said that, because this is definitely not a greatest hits album,” Gerges says, before joking that “first of all, they are not hits – and they are not all that great”.
But the album does serve to showcase the band’s evolution over a 10-year period.
“I think that what it shows is that we are always developing and learning as we go,” he says. “I mean, some of the earlier songs we have in there can be a bit tough for me to listen to, because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were recording in a small room and still learning to use the microphone the right away. This was way before we even thought about recording in great spaces in Paris.”
But for all the recording trickery of their latest tunes, it will be live on that Groove on the Grass stage where Mashrou’ Leila will be at their most scintillating.
Led by enigmatic frontman Sinno and augmented by evocative stage visuals, the group conjure a fabulous mix of brooding mystery and sheer abandon through their hip-shaking rhythms and throbbing groove.
For such a party sound, it seems rather strange that it caused the band all that trouble over the years. Gerges laughs and ends the interview with this rather apt point: “We joined the band to write songs, not political statements. It just ended up becoming that way.”
Updated: November 13, 2019 06:40 PM