Indie Lebanese band voices hopes of Arab youth

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Friday, Sept. 14, 2012 photo, Arab fans of the Lebanese group “Mashrou Leila” cheer as the band performs, unseen, in the ancient Roman amphitheater in the Jordanian capital Amman. The band, which fusing velvety Lebanese slang to European instruments, addresses difficult, sometimes taboo issues of Middle Eastern societies: homosexuality, premarital sex, poverty, intertwined with love and angst. They are being embraced by some Arab youths who see the music as part of a cultural and social revolution, inspired by the Arab Spring, where mass demonstrations toppled their aging rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and unleashed a civil war in Syria.

Diaa Hadid, Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan — Hundreds of young Arabs joyfully screamed out obscenities, encouraged by the handsome, gay Lebanese lead singer at the concert in Jordan's capital. Police looked on worriedly. People outside asked what was going on.

It was a performance by the band Mashrou Leila, which uses a hybrid of velvety Lebanese slang and European instruments to address difficult, sometimes taboo issues of Middle Eastern societies. Lyrics of love and angst are intertwined with more difficult, sometimes taboo issues, with issues like poverty, premarital sex and homosexuality in this deeply homophobic region.

The success of the band, whose name is translated as "Night Project," appears to be another outgrowth of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the Mideast last year. Led by lead singer and song writer Hamed Sinno, a 24-year-old Freddy Mercury doppelganger and openly gay man, the band has been soundly embraced by Arab youth who see the music as part of a cultural and social revolution.

"They are about secularism, gay love, social problems that we don't talk about, that we don't accept, that we are afraid to discuss," said 19-year-old student Jalal Elias, of the northern Israeli city of Haifa, which has a large Arab-Palestinian population. "The kind of people who make this music — they made the Arab Spring."

On a recent Friday, some 3,000 fans attended Mashrou Leila's concert in Amman's ancient Roman auditorium. Young men and women wore tight jeans, thick-framed glasses, and disheveled haircuts. Other women wore headscarves and modest Muslim dress.

They cheered as Sinno sung of a gay couple breaking up in a song called, "Smell the Jasmine."

"I wanted to be your housewife," Sinno crooned. "I wanted to raise your children."

The crowd happily screamed obscenities from the band's song "Gossip." Sinno later said in an interview with The Associated Press that Jordanian censors wouldn't him sing the lyrics "prostitute" and "pimp," so he let the fans sing it instead. They also sang along to "Dresses," of a couple broken apart by poverty and religious conflict. The song suggests the couple was having premarital sex — another taboo issue.

Sinno said the band's music reflects the broader spirit of revolution. "I think the people that create music are the product of the same system that produces the revolutionaries we see changing the Arab world today," he said.

The band is one of many rock, hip hop and "electro-folk" groups connecting with a hazy Mideast demographic called "Arab Spring youth" — educated, liberal, Muslims and Christians in their late teens and twenties.

Other musicians include folk rocker Youssra El-Hawary, the reggae inspired "Tout Ard," and rapper duo Oka-Ortega.

Many of the music groups existed before the Arab uprisings that began in January 2011 and toppled aging rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and unleashed a civil war in Syria. But the artists have since grown in popularity — partly because, according to Egyptian music producer Mohamed Gorab, edgier lyrics and Western-influenced music resonate in a revolutionary time.

"This is a new generation that's emerging," Gorab said in an interview. "They are feeling more freedom, and the music shows that."

With its commercial success, Mashrou Leila stands apart from the other bands. The group has performed in Cairo, Beirut, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and the Qataris capital Doha for audiences of around 3,000 people. In European music festivals, they play for non-Arabic speaking fans. Judging from Facebook and other social media, the band also has amassed a few dozen Israeli Jewish groupies.

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