Hamed Sinno is a Lebanese Freddie Mercury — only he wears black, not white. In a shiny wife-beater, slicked-back hair and matching mustache, he hits the painfully high notes and caresses the microphone. Sinno is the front man for Mashrou’ Leila, the Lebanese band making sound waves across the Middle East, and now in London.
This week, the band performed for the first time in the British capital. Their London tour was extended from a single night to two after the first venue sold out. Performing this week in north London’s The Garage and at Venue 229 in central London, they packed out the floor with young Lebanese fans and die-hard Arabists.
Mashrou’ Leila comes as a shock to those accustomed to Lebanon’s traditional soundtrack. The warbling French chancons and ubiquitous voice of Lebanese diva Fayrouz are drowned out by a genreless blend of Arab tarab, indie, folk, rock, electro, and maybe even Balkan gypsy dance.
Dancing is exactly what Mashrou’ Leila’s latest album is all about. Titled Raasuk, or You’ve Been Choreographed, the band say the album is “most importantly” about “dancing.” Instead of moshing, members of the audience kicked out their legs, twirled and tapped their heels. Although most Londoners may not be able to move like the belly-dancer in the music video for “Lil Watan,” they gave it a pretty good shot.
It is not just Mashrou’ Leila’s sound that defies tradition; the band’s approach to the Arab music industry is unorthodox. In a dramatic break from the multi-millionaire pop stars of the region, Mahrou’ Leila financed their latest album through the Arab crowd-funding website ZOOMAL. They did it all on the $66,000 donated by fans.
The successful release of Raasuk in August has seen the seven-member band tour Lebanon, Canada, France, the UK and Spain. Khaled Ziada, part of the behind-the-scenes team in London, has been bringing independent Arab artists to the capital for over a decade. Ziada already has his next lineup assembled, composed mainly of Palestinian artists, including renowned Palestinian Hip Hop group DAM, who will be performing at The New Empowering Church in Hackney on Oct. 26.