Almost two weeks before the launch of their long-awaited third album ‘Raasük’ (They Choreographed You) on 28 August, Mashrou’ Leila gave their fans a taste of what to expect with their online release of ‘Wa Nueid’ (And again, and again, and again), one of the 11 tracks on the album, to which they added a caption that read: ‘May we all be resilient in these wearisome times’.
The song, echoing the desperation of Sisyphus with a dash of stubborn determination, and pledging unwavering resistance in the face of oppression with lyrics like ‘We’ll keep our eyes open even as they throw dust at us; tell them we can still see’, came at a very appropriate timing. In Egypt, hundreds were already dead in the aftermath of the dispersal of two pro-Morsi protest camps, while an explosion had just taken place in Beirut’s Southern neighbourhood of Ruwais, killing 21 civilians and injuring more than 300.
To hardcore fans, the moment the song started circulating online was reminiscent of a similar time a little more than two years ago, when the band’s single ‘Ghadan Yawmon Afdal’ came out during Cairo’s 18-day uprising in 2011, with a tag that said: ‘To the generation of Revolution: Tomorrow is a better day.'
It is that honest, fervent responsiveness to the reality that young people across the Arab region are immersed in that makes Mashrou’ Leila such a sensation amongst a large segment of them. Most of their songs are reflections on the society they are part of and the challenges they experience firsthand living within its confines, often portrayed through personal stories of love, loss and defiance.
Their ceaselessly growing fan-base got the chance to display their infallible loyalty when the band launched a campaign on Lebanese crowd-funding platform Zoomaal, asking fans and supporters to help them raise $66,000 for the production and promotion of their third album. In slightly more than six weeks, the band had managed to collect the required amount.
Determined not to be at the mercy of a record label that might require them to alter their sound, tone down their lyrics or adjust their musical identity in order to fit mainstream tastes, Mashrou’ Leila decided to work on everything related to the album themselves – from the recording, which they did at the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal, to the album art, designed by vocalist/songwriter Hamed Sinno – and to take on a mission of enormous magnitude in the process: to change the face of the Arabic music industry. They in turn chose an equally big slogan, which they used as a hashtag to spread the word about the campaign all over social media platforms: #occupyarabpop.
“Help us demand that the music industry stop remanufacturing the same pop stars with different names. Help us demand better art. Help us demand diverse representation in our cultural environment. Help us force the industry to listen to the people. Help us not get choreographed. Help us Occupy Arab Pop… Make sure you tell the world change is coming, and it doesn’t have implants.”
‘Raasük’ can itself be considered an act of rebellion against ‘the choreographer’ – the forces that seek to shape you according to their dogmas and make you dance to their beat instead of your own. Not only through the songs that directly address the shackles of tradition and how they hinder young individuals in Arab societies, but also because, musically and aesthetically, the band manages to wander far from the rigid straight lines that Arabic music has been forced to follow for decades, and into new, uncharted territories that their fans find incredibly exciting.
Also central to the evolution of Mashrou’ Leila, is the emergence of a noticeable ‘collective consciousness’ in the songs. While they had always been aware of the troubles permeating countries across the region, they had often expressed them in personal contexts – for example, sectarianism was tackled through a love story doomed in ‘Fasateen’ ('Mashrou’ Leila', 2009), and the surrendering revolutionary isolated himself in ‘Inni Mneeh’ ('El Hal Romancy', 2011). Now, however, the pronoun ‘we’ is used more frequently, and a spirit of unified struggle pervades the album.
The first track, in collaboration with French trumpeter Érik Truffaz, is a slow, haunting, instrumental prologue titled 'Ahyanan La Atouf' (I Sometimes Don't Roam), where the trumpet provides sad notes to a violin that promises something big will follow.
True to that promise comes ‘Abdo’, which tells – in a manner evocative of folk tales – the story of a flower seller in love with a widow. Although Abdo is desperate in his unrequited love, Papazian’s violin provides a lively interlude that you can almost call happy, until it turns sombre again, ending the song on a desolate note.
More desolation is yet to be found in ‘Ala Babu’ (At His Door), a sensual ballad where Sinno passionately bemoans the loss of a lover he cannot stop fantasising about and longing for. The lyrics are quite body-focused; articulating that the pain he feels is similar to somebody ‘strangling’ him by the ‘aorta’.
Opening with a fast drum roll and another agile violin sequence, ‘Taxi’ is the simple advice given by an old cab driver to Sinno on a ride he took with him: ‘The road is long and difficult; a true test for the soul,’ he tells him. ‘You can drive or be driven, the choice is yours… but at the end of the day, whether you like it or not, you die.’
‘Skandar Maalouf’ leaves much room for interpretation, but it is most likely about two persons – one seducing the other, and the latter giving in after futile attempts at resisting. He is on the verge of confessing his desires; feeling wild and disoriented (‘his heart bursting from his head; his brain bursting from his chest’), he asks people to back away for ‘the bleeding might shock them’, but, then again, it ‘might heal them’ – from their prejudices, supposedly.
If a song were to be written precisely about the current ‘spiral of silence’ engulfing Egypt as the state propaganda machine grows louder, it wouldn't come out more accurate than ‘Lil Watan’ (For the Nation). To a background of tense keyboard timbres and earnest, embittered violin strokes that grow angrier as the song progresses, the lyrics speak of critical voices that are constantly being silenced with theories of conspiracy, how questioning citizens are robbed of their freedoms – sometimes even accused of being traitors – and how ‘the nation’, as a term, is reduced to a means of justifying tyranny and brainwashing the masses.
‘Bishuf’ (He Sees) is an intimate account of a man’s relationship with the melancholy he conjures up himself and welcomes readily into his home. He blames it (him) for seeing ‘disobedience in his passion and treason in his joy’, yet he blames himself too, for giving in to him. The sparse beats of the drum, the subtle hum of the bass guitar and the soothing violin give the song an added feeling of reverence, and its implications of self-destruction makes most listeners relate. Is that voice inside the man’s head a reflection of the society that berates him, shuns him, and that he fiercely tries to ignore but sometimes cannot? Maybe.
‘Ma Tetrikni Heik’ (Don’t Leave Me This Way), a reinvention of Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quittes Pas’, is an impassioned appeal for a lover not to leave, relying almost solely on the intensity of Sinno’s voice and the vivid imagery in the words to deliver – 'My love, stay; we'll talk through the night, we'll drink in the moon, and its light will quench your thirst.'
The album's title track, 'Raasük’, is inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the song, Dorian Gray represents every person who’s been manipulated – chased, trained, enslaved, programmed and forced to ‘move like them’. He was given a choice, but he danced to their rhythm and now he is suffering. He is urged to free himself from the agony, to destroy his decaying portrait. Once again the music is nervous, angry, but with an indisputable hint of sorrow, and it ends on a fade-out; the agony continues. There is no absolution.
‘Wa Nueid’ follows ‘Raasük’, perhaps as a reminder that there’s still something that could be done to fight ‘them’ – probably the same ‘them’ in the previous song. ‘We will push to break the cage we have become’… and, it is deduced, we will keep on at it, again and again and again. The keyboard notes keep repeating themselves too – almost monotonously – in tune with the lyrics, as does the faint, organised clap in the background.
The final number on the album, like the first one, features Érik Truffaz. ‘Bahr’ (Sea) is an elegy mesmerising in its power, its raw, unrefined pain. A man mourns his brother, who possibly drowned, and asks the sea to bring him back. However, there are indicators that he might have been the one who killed him: ‘I took him to the sea; purified the waves with his blood.’
Many heated discussions took place between fans of the band concerning literary or mythological inspirations behind 'Bahr'. Some related it to Nietzsche’s use of the sea as a metaphor for knowledge and truth, while others found a similarity in the story of Hippasus, the Greek philosopher who discovered irrational numbers and was thrown into the sea by members of the Pythagorean ‘brotherhood’ – of which he was a member - as punishment for ‘divulging’ the newfound information that challenged the scientific status quo of the time.
However, when members of the band are asked for clarifications, they are rarely willing to make any. To them, it is very rewarding when people listen to their music and interpret the words personally. In Wilde’s famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he writes: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim” – and maybe that is what drives the band to keep their influences hidden; they want their music to be experienced the way a person receives it, without being filtered by the band's own perception of it.
And perhaps it is in fact this energetic speculation – the perpetual debate their music generates, the stimulating questions it poses – that gives Mashrou’ Leila even more value as a band, and makes them the success they have become today.