jam architects

TALK TO ME ABOUT EGGPLANTS

Mashrou Leila’s first hit song is not about dick, though the band is no stranger to songs about dick.

So far, I’ve buried the Mashrou Leila lede, the fact that frames every piece of music journalism about them, but before getting to it, some brief biographical notes: In 2007, Mashrou Leila was a nameless school side-project made up of seven members — Hamed Sinno (lead vocals), Haig Papazian (violin), Firas Abou Fakher (guitar), Andre Chedid (guitar), Ibrahim Badr (bass), Omaya Malaeb (keyboards), and Carl Gerges (drums) — all belonging to the Department of Architecture & Design at AUB.

There is an ease to their origin story, a youthful brashness: a group of designers and architects jam in intermediary spaces between and after classes, singing about everything that’s wrong with Lebanon, almost complaining, but not without a wink, because we’re all in on this Lebanese joke together, and somehow, we’re all still here. Their flippant adolescence, propelled by the incisive intelligence of Sinno’s lyrics, was contagious. They soon graduated from AUB events to concert halls and festivals, capturing with them the voice of a Lebanese generation that was tired of carrying the past generation’s war, and was looking for a new identity.

Between its geography and history, Lebanese identity in general is fraught. But for Mashrou Leila’s lead singer and lyricist — Hamed Sinno, a gay, US passport holding Arab Sunni Muslim in Lebanon, identity turns a whole new corner, becoming its own maze. In America, Sinno’s homosexuality is the first if not only, talking point. He is often tokenized, and as a result, Mashrou Leila is tasked with representing the whole Middle East, a reality Sinno pushes against, “To take one band and say these five people speak for all the disconnected political changes in the entire region, it’s almost racist.”

Today, the band is down to Sinno, Papazian, Abou Fakher, Gerges and Badr, and they don’t shy away from identity politics. Rather then accepting the identity imposed on them to act as a bridge between the East and West — a binary they reject as orientalist, one that gives too much importance to the West — they’ve imagined a new identity, one that allows them to “bring Beirut to London,” to overlay spaces on top of each other, to allow identity to be textured.

Before all that though, before the headlines, the think pieces and the Orlando shooting that saw Sinno reflect at concerts, “this is what it looks like to be gay and Muslim,” Mashrou Leila was just a group of designers and architects jamming in intermediary spaces between and after classes.

Their first song, Raksit Leila (Leila’s Dance), has no geography, or identity, sonically it swings from classical Mediterranean to Latin jazz, and the lyrics are mostly nonsensical:

It is unintelligible except for its charm, its exasperation. Raksit Leila is a sort of ode to distraction, an ode to a city and people distracted and rattling inside a cage of binaries. The video is intimate, like peeking into the life of precocious Arab kids writing the urban space to their whimsy.

My favorite moment comes in the middle, when the electricity goes out. The messaging gets muddled, the song is transitioning out of the Mediterranean and into southern Spain. The band huddles together, lighting candles and laughing. Lebanon’s infrastructure never recovered from the civil war, and even today, electricity in Lebanon is available for only handful of hours everyday. Most of the country spends its time in a darkness unknowable to us here. That darkness, making itself known in the middle of a song about the absurdity of identity, is the root from which the rest of the band’s catalogue grows.