When Fairuz released her song "To Beirut" in 1984, in the shadow of the Lebanese civil war, the lyrics breathed life and hope into the city. At the time, Lebanon's greatest female singer didn't know that the pastoral city she described would descend into the abyss of additional bloody wars, political and economic crises, and long nights spent in the dark without electricity.
The endless cycle of disasters bred a new generation of young musicians. In contrast to Fairuz's classical response, which is easy on the ears, this generation responded to the harsh reality with the sounds of rage and shamelessness – and a heavy dose of screams and distortion.
This is the story of Slave to Sirens, one of the Middle East's first metal bands, and the first all-female group in Lebanon to take on the tough genre. When Moroccan-American director Rita Baghdadi's new documentary about the band, "Sirens," screened at the most recent Sundance Film Festival in Utah it was well-received throughout the Western world and earned the band's five members more recognition than they'd ever expected.
The story begins in 2015, when five women met in a small room in the suburbs of Beirut. It was the height of the "garbage protests," when hundreds of Lebanese citizens, predominantly from the younger generation, protested dysfunction within the Lebanese government and corruption in the country's public sector.
Guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara already knew one another from previous demonstrations, and they invited bassist Alma Doumani and drummers Tatyana Boughaba and Maya Khairallah to meet. Their objective: To work together to bring about a change in awareness. Their solution: Death metal.
That same year, Slave to Sirens was born. Their first EP, "Terminal Leeches,' was released in 2018 and included four songs tackling topics like animal abuse, murder, and the evil instincts that drive people to resort to force and wage war. Beyond the obvious challenges facing an all-female ensemble in a conservative Muslim country, the five found themselves fighting against the social norms of the entire Arab world, which reject metal culture and everything it represents.
"Metal music has never been accepted under Arab regimes, just as the Gay Pride parade couldn't succeed in Egypt," Kobi Farhi, a founder of the metal band Orphaned Land, says. "The genre is characterized by black clothes, long hair, skulls, and band names related to death. The authorities in Arab countries don't quite understand it, and immediately interpret it as devil worship, heresy."
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“Metal-lovers in Arab countries are always very brave. Police tend to come to their homes and conduct searches. They're usually socially ostracized and have a hard time." However, he stresses, the Arab world's lack of tolerance for metal culture hasn't caused it to die out. “Metal is always there, because it's rooted in a kind of rebellion, protest. Even in Arab countries, many people connect to the music.”
It’s no coincidence
Baghdadi made a deliberate decision to document these women’s lives. In the Sundance Festival program, she noted her determination to highlight voices that would shatter Western stigmas about Arab women. Growing up between Maryland and Morocco in a post 9/11 America, Baghdadi wrote, “I was deeply affected by the way Arab characters were treated in the films I saw. They were demonized and belittled, and I couldn’t find a girl like me anywhere.”
After meeting Slave to Sirens, Baghdadi knew she had found the subjects she'd been looking for: Arab women who defy all stereotypes, curse, scream and speak openly and powerfully about sexuality. Baghdadi's film follows the band from its inception at that 2015 protest, through performances at various demonstrations, and up until the devastating explosion at the Beirut port in 2020 – which each member was compelled to respond to in her own way.
Baghdadi shows the band members' compulsion to make music, even during profound crises and in a society that does not appreciate metal. She tracks their successes and their resounding failures. Baghdadi and her camera are there when the band takes the stage at the 2019 Glastonbury Festival in England, when all their dreams seem to be within reach. And she is also there when they return to Lebanon to realize that their European success was only temporary; the same barriers and critics were waiting for them back home.
No stability, no work
The women of Slave to Sirens have not let the difficulties – both musical and gender-based – deter them in their aim to be professional and create thrash and death metal music that meets the standards of Western bands. Among others, their influences include Coroner, a Swiss band whose style is very similar to theirs.
The first Arab metal bands arose in the 1990s in Egypt. Among the most prominent are Crescent, which began in Cairo, and Lycopolis, which hails from the city of Asyut. Voices of Baceprot (VOB), an all-female group from Indonesia that was established in 2014, also paved the way for Slave to Sirens. VOB has performed in Dubai and Cairo, and their 2018 single, "School Revolution," was viewed over a million times on social media.
"This country has been f**ked up since my grandparents were born. War, no stability, no work," guitarist Mayassi says in the film, moments before heading on stage. The moment underscores how music offers Mayassi and her friends a singular channel for self-expression. They are determined. They don't give up. Their courage to take all their passion and anger on stage, while Lebanon disintegrates around them, could not exist without their mutual support for one another.
In 2019, they performed on Hamra Street, one of Beirut's main drags. They were repaid with threats of violence, being ostracized by their families and pushed out of their close circles. Some of the band members live their lives far from their families, which offer no support or encouragement.
“It was hard at first,” recalls drummer Boughaba in the film. “I had to go through lots of arguments with the family in order for it to work out. But at the end of the day it’s not their decision. I’m not waiting for their approval. Wearing black was a big problem for my father. He said, ‘Black is the color of the devil. You have to wear red, white or pink.’”
“The greatest compliment given to soloists in heavy metal bands is that they sound like men – or that they are even better than men,” says Nilly Hankin, the editor and presenter of “HaGal HaAdom," a program about metal music on the Israeli station Radio Hakatze (KZRadio). “But it’s also important to note that in vocal distortions in death metal and thrash metal songs, as in the false fold or the high scream – the voice is actually not used. It’s only the sound of air passing through all kinds of body tissue. The voice is a very important characteristic of gender – and here there is no voice.”
She says that singers in this genre are freed from the limitations of gender. "It's true that we have a male dominated scene," she adds, "but the ones who teach the men to scream properly are women. There are coaches for brutal vocals, Melissa Cross, for example, she's the guru of screaming and growling."
“Those women have demonstrated great courage,” Farhi sums up. “Music is an outlet for expression and helps lots of women in the Middle East voice their protest, even more so when it comes to the world of metal in a conservative, patriarchal society. The world should listen to what they have to say.”