BYBLOS: Analysts might have missed it, but anyone who went to see Mashrou3 Leila’s concert at the Byblos Festival on Friday could not fail to observe that a new divide of sorts has come to separate the Lebanese – a cultural isolation between generations.
Hamed Sinno, the band’s lead singer, could not keep himself from shouting “We’re in Byblos!” throughout the show, leading some to wonder whether he was reassuring his audience, his band or himself that this was truly happening.
Mashrou3 Leila’s meteoric rise to notoriety, culminating in this festival booking, does not stem simply from its unique fusion of musical elements. When the band set out to conquer the Lebanese indie scene in 2008, it brought with it a solid fan base recruited from their fellow students at the American University of Beirut.
Through word of mouth, Mashrou3 Leila lured more than a thousand people to their gig in Demco Steel Factory at the end of last year – impressive for a Lebanese underground band.
Since then, the audiences have steadily grown, though it’s still largely comprised of students and Gemmayzeh bar-hoppers. As a consequence, the atmosphere at the Byblos concert was that of a high school gig – albeit a very sophisticated one – that had somehow been transplanted into Byblos’ quaint surroundings.
When the seven-piece collective let the first notes of a song ring out, it’s fans immediately recognized them and began to sway along to the tune.
A distinct blend of rock, acoustic and electro-pop, with Balkan and Gypsy accents as well as traditional Armenian and Arabic cadences, their music strikes a note with their listeners, many of whom have spent some time abroad and are well aware of what is going on in the broader musical world.
At the same time, the band’s decision to sing solely in Arabic – which might sound like an obstacle to gaining the goodwill of an audience used to a fast-paced medley of three languages – has become a recipe for success.
This might also be because unlike some mainstream Lebanese singers, Sinno takes streetwise local slang and trans-forms it into an entirely new kind of poetry.
Combining soul-wrenching lamentations with megaphone-enhanced outbursts of angry staccato rants, he sings about issues that few Arab artists have dared to approach. The daily nuisance of military checkpoints is as much a topic as strip clubs, homosexual relationships and political instability.
For his fans, Sinno has become the voice of a generation, addressing problems alien to their parents. For the older members of the Byblos audience, Mashrou3 Leila’s insouciance when it comes to traditional boundaries must have been a tad provocative.
After a song peppered with swear words, Prime Minister Saad Hariri – who, rumor had it, had attended because he hadn’t been able to make it to the Wadih al-Safi tribute concert the week before – felt compelled to leave the show after half an hour.
The politician’s absence left the band and their enthusiastic fans to their own devices, although it would have been interesting to see Hariri’s reaction to Sinno’s next move.
After one audience member handed him a rainbow flag (the international symbol of the gay pride movement), the singer draped it around his head, waist and microphone and did not shed it until the end of the show. If anyone in the audience disapproved of this gesture, they kept it to themselves.
The group went on to celebrate their invitation to the festival with a tribute to the Gorillaz song “Clint Eastwood,” preparing the stage for Damon Albarn’s indie mammoth that will invade Byblos this weekend.
The band members come from varied sectarian backgrounds, and these differences can be the butt of a joke or two. When violinist Haig Papazian, overcome for a moment, burst out: “We love you!” Sinno cheerfully mocked the remark as typical Armenian sentimentality. The comment provoked applause and laughter, rather than parochial sensitivities.
You could not help but feel that, for Lebanon’s young generation, Mashrou3 Leila represents something almost resembling optimism.
The Byblos International Festival will host the Gorillaz on July 20. Damon Albarn will be joined by most of the Plastic Beach contributors, including The Clash’s Mick Jones, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, De La Soul and The National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. For more information contact +961 9 54 20 20