Lebanese Rock Band Pays the Price for Challenging Norms in the Middle East

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Hamed Sinno (C), the lead singer of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila performs with his band during a concert in Beirut, Lebanon, August 6, 2015
Hamed Sinno (C), the lead singer of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila performs with his band during a concert in Beirut, Lebanon, August 6, 2015Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila's blend of indie rock and lyrics about social and political injustice have won a passionate following among fans seeking an alternative to Arab pop focused on romantic themes.

But securing a firm footing in the Middle East has been difficult for the band. Jordanian authorities cancelled their concert in June, for the second year in a row, and Lebanese radio stations steer clear of its music.

"There are many difficulties when we try to play concerts in the Middle East, even though we think that when we are writing our music, we would be thinking about the Arab society, about Lebanon, about the people who understand us and those who we want to help make a difference in their lives, and change it for the better," said Hamed Sinno, 29, the openly gay vocalist of the five-member band formed in 2008 that has stirred controversy in his home region with songs tackling oppression, classism, sectarianism and homophobia.

Lebanese rock band on not being able to perform in the Mid EastCredit: Haaretz

"It is clear we can't play in Saudi Arabia for example. The war in Syria stops us from playing in Syria. We can't play in Palestine because of the Israeli occupation and because of the situation in which Lebanon and Israel are at war, so we can't stamp our passports in Israel and honestly though, anyway. We can't play in Jordan because the Muslim Brotherhood is in control. Those are the difficulties, honestly, other than the economy in Egypt that can't even allow a financial transaction to buy plane tickets," Sinno added, listing places where conflict or social conservatism prohibit them from performing.

Mashrou' Leila has played concerts in cities including Paris, London, New York and San Francisco since its 2015 album Ibn El Leil reached number 13 on the Billboard world album chart.

The band's music has broken away from the norm in a region whose pop stars steer clear of social issues.

The band's most recent song, Roman, focuses on overcoming betrayal, with references to Judas and Jesus. The video was directed by a woman, Jessy Moussallem, and is dominated by women.

A fan of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila holds a rainbow flag during their concert at the Ehdeniyat International Festival in Ehden town, Lebanon August 12, 2017Credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

"If there is one message we are trying to send through this video to the men in the Arab World, it would be to take more of a back seat (role)," Sinno said.

At sunset on Saturday (August 12), young fans gathered at the venue, wearing shirts emblazoned with the Arabic numeral "3", the symbol of Mashrou' Leila's latest and third album, while others wore tops bearing Nirvana and Beatles logos.

The band's move away from traditional Arab music was appealing to Lebanese fan Anthony.

"They have this sort of Western twang. The way he sings and vocalises, it's not very clear what he's saying," he said.

Beirut, with its eclectic mix of noise and language, also had a big influence on the band, but critics in the region often focuses on Sinno's way of singing: he elongates words so they are often incomprehensible.

The band draws inspiration from R&B, jazz, rock, Seattle grunge and metal, and they listen to a lot of Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Madonna and Fleetwood Mac, identifying strongly with music coming out of the United States and Britain.

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