Now stop me if I’m wrong, but the quaint cobbled streets of Exeter aren’t often graced with the strange blend of music that is Arab Pop. From the Old Firehouse to Cavern (and everything in between), you get to hear a lot of music if you keep your ear to the ground, but rarely will you be directed toward our Devonshire dreamtown for its vibrant wealth of world music from that decidedly turbulent region. So here I find myself, cast out into the heart of this most exotic of places (Jordan to be exact, the quiet one hemmed in by a series of unquestionably rowdier neighbours), and I have a whole new genre to explore. I have to be honest, there’s very little I find more exciting than being confronted with a plethora of music I know nothing about.
I use the term ‘Arab Pop’ for want of a better term. If you punch it into Wikipedia, you can see a fairly accurate description: a focus on romantic themes, avoidance of topics considered ‘forbidden’ by Islam, no explicit references to sexuality or alcohol. Much of it can be fairly bland. I’ve listened to it, I’m no great fan.
Then you look a little deeper, you speak to a few people, you plod your way through the glut of music on Youtube, and you start to discover music that does not fall into that category of Arab Pop. One such band is Mashrou’ Leila (it has several meanings, but can roughly be translated as “An Overnight Project”). You may have heard of them. It’s quite possible that you’re more likely to have heard their music than the average Arab. Based in Beirut, this band plays as much if not more in the West than they do in the Middle East. The frontman (Hamed Sinno) is openly gay, their lyrics criticise Lebanese society and government, and the words Sinno sings carry with them an inherent sexuality. Classic Arab Pop this certainly is not. A better description would be contemporary alternative Arabic music, though had I started off using such a term, I reckon most readers would have been turned off by the very loftiness of the thing.
“The frontman is openly gay, their lyrics criticise Lebanese society and government, and the words Sinno sings carry with them an inherent sexuality. Classic Arab Pop this certainly is not.”
To say that they are notably Arab in production and influence, or notably Western, would be wrong. Their music straddles both parts of the world. There is an Arcade Fire theatricality to their work (indeed, their most recent album was recorded in the same studio as the Montreal band), the guitar riffs have an almost Arctic Monkeys hallmark to them, and yet again you can hear the ultimately Arabic influences of the likes of Fayrouz (the Lebanese equivalent to Maria Callas) through their use of what can best be described as a scratchy-vinyl type of string backing. In several of their songs, such as ‘Ma Tetrekni Hek’ (a cover of ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’), it is clear that they hope to break down barriers between both worlds.
Sinno clearly cringes in several interviews when asked about whether his music is typically Arab or Western. He argues that there is a prescribed exoticism forced upon Arab Pop that he finds difficult to align to, wherein the music ought to fall in line with a preconceived Oriental notion of the Middle East. You can find this in the themes the band focus on, which, in principle, seem to highlight the grittier, taboo elements of Lebanese society too-regularly overlooked by standard Arab Pop. At the same time, he refuses to acknowledge any real ‘Western’ identity to their music, and I would agree with this. Mashrou’ Leila are far too keen to base their music around social problems within their home country, and the musical influences are far too ‘Arab’ to suggest that they are a cut-and-paste ‘Western’ band. Mashrou’ Leila are something new, and await a genre to define them.
With a body of work that stretches over three albums, Mashrou’ Leila do not seem to shrink from any topic. ‘Skandar Maalouf’, from their most recent album Raasuk, is a song that confronts homophobia in the Middle East, as a gay man attempts to seduce a heterosexual man. Another of their key manifesto pieces, from the same album, is ‘Three Minutes’, wherein Sinno almost despairingly refers to the short amount of time one has in a pop song to get across any kind of a meaningful message, whilst at the same time deploring a society that forces you to toe the line with everyone else.
Mashrou’ Leila are a protest band. They are the ultimate punk band of the Middle East. It probably best explains why they have been forced to seek funding not from Arab corporations, as is the Middle Eastern norm (indeed, their most recent album was financed by fans). Their song, ‘Wa Nueid’, a gypsy-esque piece with rattling percussion and minimal piano, calls for a never-ending spring. Some of their earlier records are recorded with what sounds like a megaphone, almost as if they were produced from the very centre of an anti-government protest. Then they will throw a song at you detailing sadomasochism. Mashrou’ Leila are different, and unabashedly so. If I were you, I would take the time to listen to them, if you haven’t already.