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Mashrou Leila

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About Mashrou Leila

Mashrou Leila in Concert

They are easily one of the Arab world's most significant indie rock bands, a fearless voice for the LGBTQ community in the Middle East who court continual controversy. But Mashrou Leila are also an absolutely riveting musical act whose influences – including The Strokes, Radiohead and Arctic Monkeys – explain only part of the band's musical magnetism. A huge portion of that resides in the band's erudite and openly gay frontman Hamed Sinno, who combines Freddie Mercury's charisma with a poet's anarchic sensibility.

Formed in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2008 at the American University, the band's name – "the overnight project" – stemmed from the all-night jams that brought the members together. They became famous early on in Beirut's burgeoning indie scene (yes, that's a thing), thanks to the single "Raksit Leila," which won both the jury and popular awards at Radio Liban's Modern Music Contest. But they didn't find a wider audience until after the uprisings of the 2010 Arab Spring, when young people increasingly sought out voices speaking truth to power. Mashrou Leila fit the bill. With songs about everyday life in Lebanon and about corruption, homophobia and misogyny, the group handily covers the region's taboo topics – and throws in a few curse words for good measure. (They also quote Walt Whitman and Sylvia Plath, just to balance the sacred and profane.) The band is unquestionably committed to its artistic freedom: In 2013 they undertook a crowdfunding campaign to record their album Raasuk (Made You Dance) so they could avoid censorship and maintain control.

Of course, all this outspokenness has come with costs: The band have faced bans in Jordan and Egypt, and fans waving rainbow flags were arrested at a concert outside Cairo in 2017. But amid all the controversy, we can't forget the undeniable power of this music. Sinno is a liquid singer – powerful, sensitive and emotive – and the band can roar or whisper at his command, thanks in large part to the ghostly violin of Haig Papazian. At its best, this is grave and revelatory music that can whirl itself into a club-friendly frenzy when the moment calls for it – or uncover the sweetness of a first love ("Shim El Yasmine").