LEBANON: Ibn El Leil - Mashrou' Leila
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Defiance is the order of the day, as the techinically gifted Lebanese outfit produce an album that is as enjoyable as it is powerful
In an age of so-called culture wars, feigning interest in a cause or giving off an air of over-appreciation about something that does not truly move you in order to be seen on the right side of history is something that many are suggesting is becoming far more prevalent. Though I don’t wish to make many enemies in the field of music criticism, I sometimes share this sentiment and get the sense that many music critics use their reviews as an opportunity to virtue signal by giving inauthentic praise to an artist who promotes a certain cause, rather than giving them an honest and fair review in line with the quality of their music. Having learnt more about the fascinating and unique story behind Mashrou' Leila, I suspect there might be some naysayers out there who would like to believe that positive reviews the band get are merely due to the band’s role in confronting the double-edged sword of LGBT issues and misogyny at home, as well as Islamophobia in the West, with reviewers wanting to show themselves to be in line with the band’s message of tolerance. However, though the band of course promote a beautiful message that of course must be appreciated, as a non-Arabic speaker who was at first unaware of their powerful lyrics and thus did not realise the band’s fearlessness to criticise injustices that they see, all I had at my disposal was the album Ibn El Leil which was recommended to me. By Jove, the quality of the music on the record itself blew me away to such an extent that I would be stunned if any non-Arabic speaking critics would feel the need to give fake praise.
“...inherently serving as a calling card for youngsters across the region to be fearless and proud to embrace the nightlife scene as their opportunity for freedom and self-expression.”
Before getting into the broader political messages within this album, let’s address the music itself. The band are in some senses, uncategorisable. Although it can be argued that the music they have created on the album was all loosely connected to their indie rock roots, the bands use of electronic equipment, as well as their incredible ear for a catchy tune, to me makes their music rival some of the best electro-pop we have come across from around the world. What makes them stand out ahead of other masters of the synth is that the inclusion of electronics never seems to be simply for the sake of it; the use of drum machines, loops and so on not only add colour and texture to the music but enhance the band members’ ability to convey emotion. Despite the sometimes classical music-inspired instrumentation on display such as the powerful violin on the closing track Marrikh or the haunting backing choir and organ on Djin, the weapon by which emotion is best transmitted is by frontman Hamed Sinno’s incredible voice.
Sinno is a fascinating character with an incredible set of pipes on him. Unlike many gifted singers who attack the music fervently in order to show off their vocal ability, what Sinno does that marks him out from the crowd is that he uses his voice to complement the compositions him and his band created. Rarely taking the focus away from the music itself, Sinno instead uses his vocals as a tool to dictate the mood of the listener as his emotion can really be felt. Take my favourite song Tayf (Ghost) as an example; Sinno allows the epic instrumentation to shine as he matches the energy of the beat behind him perfectly growing into the track with an ever-increasing sense of heartache and rage. When the lyrics are understood, one realises that the aforementioned inclusion of electronics are part of a wider narrative arch.
As arguably the Middle East’s most famous gay musician, Sinno acts almost as a representative for the voice of the heavily marginalised LGBT community in the Arab world. Tayf therefore carries a powerful message as he denounces the decision to shut down a nightclub in Beirut that was frequented by minority groups. The dance-friendly beats throughout the course of the album therefore serve not only as a way in which the listeners can enjoy the music of Mashrou' Leila but also to shove two fingers up at the establishment who are wrong if they believe that they can take away the freedoms of the people without a fight. The title of the album itself Ibn El Leil translates to ‘Son of the Night’ in English, inherently serving as a calling card for youngsters across the region to be fearless and proud to embrace the nightlife scene as their opportunity for freedom and self-expression.
The lyrical power of the album does not stop at Tayf. The previous track Kalam (S/He) is a moving ballad that addresses theme of gender identity and the societal barriers that exist against them, whilst Bint Elkhandaq speaks of not fitting in within ones society be that through the experience of a woman in the Middle East or a Muslim in the West. Though serious themes, this does not stop the music from reaching points of euphoria. The song 3 Minutes is a perfect example; it is lyrically deep speaking to the experience of being an out musician amidst the backdrop of an unaccepting society, but this satire of the pop industry also manages to reveal within it an entirely superior example of what pop music can be when created with heart and ingenuity as opposed to the unambitious mainstream box-ticking that many record labels prefer to put out. For me, 3 Minutes is one of six stone cold bangers on the album. The opening five tracks Aoede, 3 Minutes, Djin, Icarus and Maghawir make this arguably the strongest start to an album I have ever come across. Being so consistent in perfection is no mean feat. Ibn El Leil is an album of real depth, one can see from the album cover and hear from the music that it is shrouded in mythology and high concept ideas, that are applied to the modern world. The band do so with bravery and a deft touch that even were that intellectualism to be taken away from the album it would stand up as an incredible selection of tunes to sing and dance along to. Praise doesn’t really get higher than that.