Byblos International Festival

Mashrou' Leila: true musicians, first and foremost

On July 21, 2008 Hamed Sinno, Firas Abu Fakher, Haig Papazian and Carl Gerges performed on stage together for the first time at AUB with their then bandmates Omaya Malaeb, Andre Chedid and Ibrahim Badr. Ten years later, only four members of the group remain, and they have been taking their talents on tour around the world, performing almost everywhere. They only want to talk about their music as they wait and hope that they’ll be able to perform on stage in Byblos on August 9.

Mashrou' Leila. Photo DR

We had promised to meet in ten years. But no one expected that this anniversary would be accompanied by a deluge of hatred calling into question whether Mashrou’ Leila will be able to play their scheduled concert in Byblos on August 9.

Our first interview took place in a cafe in April 2009. We met again with Carl Gerges just one week before the rage, homophobia, intolerance and misinterpretations of the band’s songs erupted in Lebanon. The location, decor and menu of our meeting was different than 10 years earlier. But most importantly, the state of affairs in the country has also changed and there has been a loss of respect for differences as well as rights, freedoms and liberties.

The band’s members are averse to interviews, including its main “voice”, Hamed Sinno, who has chosen to keep quiet instead of being misunderstood. Gerges, an architect, drummer and musician, has also chosen to keep to himself about the emotions he has felt and the lessons the whole group has learned from recent events. The band, started as a project of one night, ended up launching an international career that landed it on the cover of Inrocks, Liberation, Rolling Stone, the Guardian and the New York Times.

Whether their detractors like it or not, their success has made them one of the leading bands in the Middle East, blending a unique synthesis of alternative rock and Arabic poetry infused with Papazian’s magical violin and Sinno’s bewitching voice. Their success has even taken the band by surprise, and the 10 years since they formed have been an obstacle course that has compelled them to expand their world, the world in general and to try to make themselves better heard and understood.

"The doubts are still there, but they are different," Gerges confided. “We have experienced a lot of stressful events, of emotions, of bans and some blows that have caused us to pause for a moment and to question certain things.”

Now, the band is making a comeback that has brought new concerns. And they have been completely overwhelmed by the witch-hunt that they now find themselves at the center of. The events have brought a new set of questions. The first one: what comes next?


Following a sleepless night, some architecture and design students at AUB came up with a strange name for a band that, as their fans now know, was only supposed to stay together for one night. There’s no way they could have known that it would end up lasting this long. A little while later, the song Ra’sit Leila came out, immediately bewitching and astonishing the public.

Between the beginning in 2008 and September 2017, shortly after their concerts were banned in Jordan and Egypt, where the display of a rainbow flag led to 70 arrests, the four band members felt that changes were coming their way. They had become spokespeople for causes such as environmental protection and freedom of expression, but first and foremost they are musicians, preferring to talk about collaborations and new sounds.

"The Egyptian public was our biggest audience. There were 35,000 at this concert, and the two additional concerts were full. We felt guilty about the arrests that followed. Since then everything has changed," Gerges said. "After realizing that there were very few countries where we could sing in Arabic, we thought it might be better to stop. We almost did... We went through some serious soul-searching. This allowed us to realize how lucky we were to be doing this job."

New energy

After Egypt and a few months of reflection, Mashrou' Leila set off on a tour of prestigious venues, round table discussions and conferences in Europe, the United States, Australia, Asia and Latin America. They also began experimenting with songs with English lyrics.

"Nothing in our career happened overnight. Everything was done gradually. At first we were a group of rebellious young students. The way we communicate our messages has changed. We have evolved a lot musically and personally. Now we have a much better understanding of composition, of production and of the instruments that have become a language," Gerges said.

The release of their album “The Beirut School” established and confirmed the band’s maturity. "For us,” Gerges continued, “it is a way to end this period and pay tribute to our ten years. The album includes the best of our five albums as well as three new songs.”

Mashrou' Leila has also decided to "enjoy new encounters with artists who have a broader vision" and has dared to become lighter and more spontaneous. They also opted to add more electronics and make their style more accessible. They wanted to get out of their comfort zone, according to Gerges, which they did without ever being provocative.

They performed in prestigious venues, including the Olympia in Paris, and took part in the Oliver Beer's Vessel Orchestra sound installation at the Met Breuer in New York at the beginning of July. "This is the first installation of its kind that was organized at the Met," Gerges explained. “Beer created an instrument using vases, sculptures and decorative objects present in the museum, some dating back to Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, in addition to more modern ones. The Met gave us carte blanche to do whatever we wished and to adapt our music to this instrument and to the place using the voice of Nour el-Houda and the words of Rabih Alameddine. It was wonderful."

Now it remains to be seen whether Mashrou’ Leila will perform their 10 year anniversary concert in Byblos, a venue where they have played shows in the past. "We only want to celebrate our ten year anniversary with the public," Gerges said. "We will have a large number of guests, including Hercules & Love Affair, a group we've already worked with. The stage that we have planned should be very special and impressive, including screens and visuals, similar to all the times we have performed in Byblos. And most importantly, we are hoping to present seven new songs that have never been played before."

While waiting for the divisive storm of controversy to calm down, we are all praying (each in their own way) that this disingenuous debate ends and Mashrou’ Leila’s music reclaims the status is deserves. In the meantime, the group published the following message on its Instagram account: "We are four Lebanese of different religions and socio-cultural backgrounds. Our goal is and always has been to flourish as artists, and to use the spaces that are offered to us in order to shed light on the world’s problems surrounding us, all the while trying to make everyone around us proud. No more, no less."

(This article was originally published in French on the 27th of July)

We had promised to meet in ten years. But no one expected that this anniversary would be accompanied by a deluge of hatred calling into question whether Mashrou’ Leila will be able to play their scheduled concert in Byblos on August 9. Our first interview took place in a cafe in April 2009. We met again with Carl Gerges just one week before the rage, homophobia, intolerance and...