Mashrou' Leila at Club Soda, October 9, 2019

Club Soda hosted the band Mashrou’ Leila last Wednesday for a night of performances, music, dance and video projection. The group did not disappoint using years of experience to entertain their fans, who tightly filled the small venue. 

Mahshou’ Leila originates from an interesting place. What began as an open space for students to jam at the American University of Beirut turned into a meeting point for the four artists that now form the band: lead singer Hamed Sinno, violinist Haig Papazian, percussionist Carl Gerges and Firas Abou Fakher who plays the keyboard, guitar and bass. They use their lived experience to talk about issues that impact them and the people closest to them such as mental health, armed conflict, racism, toxic masculinity, homophobia, unstable political situations and well beyond. 

Sinno also talked about their recent ban from Egypt. Their last concert in Egypt was in Sept. 2017 at the Music Park Festival in Cairo. The turnout was huge with 35 000 people showing up. It was a wonderful and monumental performance. But the next day they got news that people got arrested for waving rainbow flags and other pro-LGBT gestures among other reasons. They were officially banned afterwards. 

“We weren’t even sure we were gonna keep performing after that,” said Sinno during a phone interview. 

But their true message transcends the injustice they face as a band. They want to convey a message of resilience for the people listening. 

“This song is about learning that some fights can’t be won,” said Sinno introducing the new song “Cavalry” about the ban, “and sometimes all you can do is say ‘f*ck you’ and walk away.” 

What makes the band special is their relatability with the people who share their lived experiences as first generation immigrants and racialized minorities who sought to settle down in another country only to be faced with a plethora of different social issues. They speak to a whole new generation of people who choose to see themselves as citizens of the world and not as individuals defined by the confines of their nation. 

But, of course, Mashrou’ Leila’s fanbase goes beyond Arabic speakers or members or various diasporas. Mashrou’ Leila is a staple of the indie and independent music scene. They have set a precedent and an example for artists around the world who choose to trust the internet over record labels and the people in power to get their music out to their audience. They prove that anyone can gain an audience if they have something powerful to say and a public to charm, impact and, more importantly, represent. 

In a rapidly growing age of Spotify and music streaming platforms, more people than ever before are listening to music in languages foreign to them. We are shifting from language-restricted content to a new era of music consumption that is curated to a humanity that is increasingly embracing globalization. American music, K-Pop, Spanish pop, Mashrou’ Leila … isn’t music just music? The answer seems obvious, but the band reinforces the point for people who may not have gotten it yet. 

The concert opened with the Montreal-based rapper Narcity. With a rap style that combines humour, insight and intellect, Narcity discussed serious themes such as the ongoing Yemen genocide and conflict in Iraq where he is originally from. In the crowd stood a sea of Montrealers with a very similar lived experience. 

Mashrou’ Leila played songs from their recent compilation album The Beirut School such as “Radio Romance” and classics like “Raksit Leila”. Their show was electric. Fans got to dance and sing along to their favourites but also hear the pain and emotion in Sinno’s voice performing “Marrikh” in a dark room with a video projection of stars in space. 

Mashrou’ Leila is notorious for having cynical lyrics but, like Sinno says, pessimism often comes from a place of being optimistic that the world can change. They combined their cynicism with jovial music, flamboyant adornments and several tricks up their sleeve, one being the lead singer’s white microphone he pulled out mid song or bursting into contemporary dance during a musical bridge. 

What felt the most special was the band’s love and connection with their fanbase. They treated the crowd like long lost friends talking to them and laughing with them. 

And for people like me who didn’t understand a single word that was sung, I felt like I understood everything that was said. I left the venue hopeful for the future of music - and of the world - one that I hope will be coloured by many different languages.

Jean-Philippe Giroux is the host of Hidden Gems, a show focusing on artists outside the realm of popular music in Canada. It plays every Thursday at 3:00 PM EST.