Mashrou’ Leila is re-imagining Arab pop music

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Lebanese indie-rock band Mashrou’ Leila is on a mission to rewrite the rules of Arab pop music, but its members didn’t start with the intention of being a full-fledged band at all.

The quintet got its start in 2008, when its members were all architecture and design students at the American University of Beirut. Guitarist Firas Abou Fakher says he and his bandmates-to-be had all played instruments casually in the past, but had largely set aside musical pursuits in favor of their studies.

Realizing their mutual interest in music, they began meeting informally to jam once a week. They played live for the first time only because one of their professors asked them to play a concert on campus, branching out into a performing career from there.

From the start, the group agreed that they would play only their own original music and not covers — certainly not the Arab pop music they’d all grown up hearing on the radio. Abou Fakher says he and his bandmates were disillusioned with mainstream Arab pop’s homogenized lyrics and sound.

“(Pop stars) change the way they look and the production changes, but at the core they’re still kind of discussing the same topics,” he says. “They’re still addressing the same ideas with very similar intentions, musically and lyrically. We’re just basically bored with it. It doesn’t talk to anybody. It doesn’t try to provoke any thoughts or any discussion about bigger issues or bigger sensitivities.”

Mashrou’ Leila’s lyrics, on the other hand, have been distinctly provocative throughout the band’s career. The song “Min el Taboor” off the group’s self-titled 2009 debut album proclaims, “We’ve been fighting for 50 years / The same war, we can’t forget / The country’s a waiting room / And the queue goes to the airport.” In addition to many other lyrics referring to Middle Eastern political strife, the band has repeatedly addressed homosexual relationships in a positive light (lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay).

Those progressive and outspoken stances have won Mashrou’ Leila a robust fan base in the Middle East, and, in recent years, the band has begun touring in Europe and the United States, as well. But the band has also encountered hostility — most recently in Jordan, where government officials canceled an April Mashrou’ Leila show on the grounds that the band’s material contradicted religious values.

“We hold a big amount of pride for the fact that our music has been able to disseminate as widely as it has, especially among Arab youth in sister countries,” Abou Fakher says. “On the other hand, we think it’s ridiculous that it’s still something that is questioned. It’s obvious to us that these things are so boring. They shouldn’t even be controversial.”

Abou Fakher expresses excitement for the band’s upcoming stop at the Grenadier Club — Mashrou’ Leila’s first Detroit show, and part of only their second U.S. tour. Abou Fakher says the band immediately started getting calls from excited fans when it announced the show close to the Arab-American center of Dearborn. But he says the band’s past American shows have attracted a “quite diverse” mix of Arab- and non-Arab-Americans.

Abou Fakher says the band’s mission is to present those audiences with more Arab music that he, his bandmates and other like-minded Arabs can be proud of. He says the Arab music industry is largely limited to performers who are “well-connected,” “very beautiful” and discovered at a very young age.

“We’re hoping to break these misconceptions about music,” Abou Fakher says. “We’re not trying to say it’s easy or everybody’s going to succeed. But once you have enough people trying, that’s when culture starts to be created.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Mashrou’ Leila

8 p.m. Sat.

Grenadier Club

3101 McDougall, Detroit

Tickets: $45