Starting over: Mashrou’ Leila celebrate 10 years in music

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Hamed Sinno and Firas Abou Fakher of Mashrou' Leila perform at The Roundhouse in London on March 7, 2019. (Getty Images)
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Mashrou' Leila: Hamed Sinno, Carl Gerges, Firas Abou Fakher, and Haig Parpazian (clockwise from left). (Tarek Moukaddem)
Updated 05 April 2019

Starting over: Mashrou’ Leila celebrate 10 years in music

  • The acclaimed Lebanese indie band closed out a hugely successful decade last month. But, frontman Hamed Sinno explains, they nearly didn’t make it

DUBAI: For 10 years, Mashrou’ Leila have been at the forefront of the underground music scene in the Arab world. Their songs — from their indie-folk roots as a seven-piece to the polished electro-pop of their current work as a quartet — have provided an alternative soundtrack to the watered-down ‘habibi’ pop that dominates the mainstream music industry in the Middle East and their socially conscious lyrics have addressed the concerns of their generation. They are, arguably, the most potent force in Arabic music, as they will prove once again in Dubai on Friday, April 5, when they play the Wasla music festival alongside several of their peers.

Last month, they marked their anniversary with their biggest European tour to date and the release of their fifth album, “The Beirut School” — a sort of ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation that includes just three new tracks.

As singer Hamed Sinno explains to Arab News, that was not the original intention. The record should have been an entirely new one, the first since their 2015 album “Ibn El Leil,” which saw them grow from a regional success story into an international one, garnering widespread acclaim from European and North American media and performing a huge number of shows around the world. And they’ve done all of this out of a region in which independent, alternative musicians receive little-to-no support and, indeed, are often hindered from pursuing their careers for social or political reasons.

But the three-plus years since the release of “Ibn El Leil” have been, Sinno says, “a constant hurricane.” Despite his energetic, charismatic stage presence, Sinno — offstage — is basically an introvert. And the amped-up media attention, driven by his position as the frontman in a band that was increasingly being hailed as a driver for cultural change in the region, began to feel overwhelming for him.

“And regardless of that,” he adds, “the pace at which things started moving over the past three years — and I mean the good and the bad — you kind of lose track of what it is that you’re doing, what you want to be doing, and what you want to get out of your career. And I feel like those are things you can’t forget when you’re a musician. They need to factor into every damn decision. Really. Every other minute of your day has to be based on those things. And it just got really difficult to keep our eyes on the target.”

So difficult, in fact, that six songs into what was meant to be the new album, the band effectively split up. “We’d had a couple of long tours, but we’d also had a lot of time off, to reflect on whether or not we even wanted to still be doing this. We hit a bit of a rough spot. We started fighting about things that weren’t even our concern to start with. Honestly. It was like we brought other people’s expectations, or other people’s rubrics for what success is, into the studio, and it just felt really difficult to make any kind of decision, even about how to write a song. We had a big falling out and decided to stop,” Sinno explains.

For around nine months, the band members — Sinno, multi-instrumentalist Firas Abou Fakher, violinist Haig Parpazian and drummer Carl Gerges (bassist Ibrahim Badr recently left the group) — were, Sinno says, “under the impression that the band was over and we were just going to have a few more shows and call quits.”

Partly this was down to the inevitable internal disputes that almost every group that’s lasted as long as Mashrou’ Leila have will eventually face (as Sinno says, “I think it’s kind of miraculous that we only had our first major falling out with our fifth album rather than our second”). But it was also caused by factors way beyond the band’s control.

Following their performance at Cairo’s Music Park Festival in September 2017 a number of audience members who had been waving rainbow-colored flags in recognition of the band’s open support for LGBT rights were arrested. And the band were officially blackballed by the Egyptian musician’s syndicate, meaning they are not allowed to perform in Egypt again.

It was not the first time Mashrou’ Leila had been banned from performing in an Arab country, but it was the first time that authorities had targeted the band’s fans. Understandably, the “Cairo incident,” as Sinno refers to it, caused some heartache and serious soul-searching for the musicians.

“For a while, I felt completely defeated, for all the obvious reasons. It really did feel like a political and emotional defeat,” Sinno says. “The vibe in the band started to get really challenging; we started arguing with each other about stuff that we didn’t need to be arguing about. And I decided that maybe this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing anymore.”

Sinno used one of the new tracks, “Cavalry,” to address the frustrations that arose after the Cairo concert. “It’s really a turning point for me in how I felt about the situation,” he says. “It’s basically about embracing that defeat and just going for it anyway. It’s about not expecting to win, necessarily, but to fight anyway. Out of all the tracks we had written and had on standby, it was one that felt very valuable to us on several levels; professionally and emotionally.”

Thankfully, it seems that Mashrou’ Leila are now past their “rough spot.” The band even managed to write and record an “uncynically happy” song — “Radio Romance” — for “The Beirut School.”

“It’s a very big departure for the band — it’s very different from anything we’ve done before. Because we sort of sat down and agreed that it wouldn’t be a song that was about something horrible. It was honestly quite challenging, in the context of the last three years, to write something positive,” Sinno explains.

“We’re still negotiating how to move forward, but I think everyone’s on the same page, at least as far as intention goes, which is the most important thing at this point,” he continues. “It’s been pretty intense. But I think it was a necessary period to basically remind ourselves why we’re doing this and what it is that we’re hoping to get out of it.”

Their European tour last month has helped the band to refocus. “It was a really great tour to play. It was the first round of shows we’d played since we decided to get back together, and the nature and caliber of the venues we were playing in was kind of its own reward,” says Sinno. “It was like the cherry on top. Like, ‘Oh, this is what we’ve been given.’ Places like L’Olympia (Paris) and the Roundhouse (London). It was technically very difficult, and stressful, but it was cathartic.”

And on Friday they perform their first Middle East show since resolving to continue the Mashrou’ Leila journey. Wasla — an annual festival celebrating Arabic alternative music and now in its third year — is the kind of event that the region needs more of, Sinno suggests.

“It’s not about exposure as much as it is just sort of grouping some things together as these little monuments to what is going on in the region,” he says. “I feel like the Middle East has a history of not properly archiving and not properly looking at the work that it produces and the history of that work, so it’s always healthy to have things like festivals that you can look back at.”

To conclude, I ask him if he’s a fan of any of the other bands performing at Wasla.

“I’m actually a fan of all of the acts,” he replies without hesitation. “If for nothing else then just because I completely recognize and understand how difficult it is for anyone to still be making music in the region. I know first-hand how hard it is to devote yourself to this line of work, and the amount of negativity that comes with it. So I completely respect all of these musicians and I’m a huge fan of all of them.”


The Athenaeum: a warm welcome in the heart of London

The historic hotel is no longer all about the glitz — and it’s all the better for it. (Supplied)
Updated 18 October 2019

The Athenaeum: a warm welcome in the heart of London

LONDON: One of the best things about visiting London is learning about the remarkable stories associated with many of its buildings and neighborhoods.

Take The Athenaeum Hotel and Residences. Its address — 116 Piccadilly — used to be known as Hope House, the swanky private residence of British MP Henry Hope, built in 1850. The interiors were so extravagant that they reportedly caught the attention of the author Charles Dickens.

Going into the Victorian era, Hope House was sold to the Junior Athenaeum Club, a gentlemen’s club open to the crème de la crème of London’s society, particularly those in science, art and literature.

The building became The Athenaeum in 1973, and the five-star hotel has been family-run since the 1990s.

History will tell you that The Athenaeum used to be all about glitz and glamour; exuding a grandiose air fit for its clientele of Hollywood celebrities and global politicians. In fact, film director Steven Spielberg once installed an editing suite in the residences, where he worked on “Close Encounters,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.”

In recent times, the property has been given an overhaul and is now more understated. It’s gone from a ritzy hotel to a boutique one — cozier, friendlier and certainly a breath of fresh air in Mayfair, an area that’s full of big brand accommodation.

Welcoming is the word that comes to mind when describing our recent visit. From the greeting at the entrance (look up Jim Gardner Burns, who has been a doorman at The Athenaeum for 26 years) to the friendly staff at reception, check-in was a breeze — and we were upgraded to a spacious suite, overlooking Mayfair. The open-plan room featured a double bed with living room area with sofa and TV. Meanwhile, the classic marble bathroom feels just as big, with probably the largest walk-in shower we have ever seen. No exaggeration, it could easily fit more than six people.

What stands out about the room is how accessible everything is. Lights can be controlled from the bedside tables, and all the functions actually work properly (how many times have you fiddled with the master switch in a room only for it not to switch off all of the lights?). One feature that could prove split opinion —  you’ll absolutely love it or loathe it — is that the majority of the walls are covered in mirrors. It’s great for lighting, but it also means saying hello to reflections of yourself everywhere.

Outside of the room, there are several highlights too. The hotel’s spa is comfortable and well-appointed. It’s also home to a decent-sized gym.

When it comes to dining, a stop at the property’s signature Galvin at The Athenaeum is a must. Created by chef-restaurateurs Chris and Jeff Galvin — who also own the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows at the London Hilton on Park Lane — it marks the first time the brothers have moved away from their trademark French-inspired menus to create modern takes on British classics. Sadly, we were short on time and didn’t visit restaurant for lunch or dinner, but the breakfast was enjoyable, combining buffet staples with an impressive à la carte menu.

One area The Athenaeum’s staff seem to take huge pride in is The View, a lounge that occupies the entire top floor of the hotel, and offers panoramic views of London’s cityscape. The space offers books, games and snacks, and is great should you need to do some work. The only downside is that the balcony, which overlooks the great views, is closed as a security precaution when we visit. And that’s a real shame, as the view would no doubt be 10 times better without the obstruction of the glass doors.

All in all, this property is definitely worth considering, providing strong competition in a saturated area of London. And with it being a short walk away from landmarks including Knightsbridge and Buckingham Palace, you’ll save a lot of time on transport. Hello, West End.

Top tip: Book via the official website to take advantage of a number of deals, including Gourmet Getaway — a five-course tasting menu, plus overnight stay with breakfast — as well as discounts on additional nights or complimentary night packages.