Mashrou’ Leila know how to keep their hometown fans wanting more. Born during a 2008 music workshop at the American University of Beirut, the group’s eponymous first album was recorded in a local studio still in the midst of construction. They’ve come a long way.
Last week the indie band launched their third album, “Raasük” (“They made you dance”), before a screaming crowd at Music Hall, a swank venue in Wadi Abu Jmeel. Their first Beirut appearance in over a year, the sell-out show was also the band’s first indoor performance in Lebanon for several years – following performances at the Byblos Festival in 2010, the Hippodrome (to launch their second album) in 2011 and last year, when they closed the Baalbeck Festival to wide acclaim.
Rather than give a straightforward rendition of their new material, the band chose a more varied playlist, punctuating tracks from the new album with a selection of earlier numbers. It was a decision that went down well with their fans, who – when not shaking their hips and heads to the band’s upbeat new tunes – sang, chanted and wailed through such old favorites as “Raksit Leila” and “Rosas.”
Recorded in Montreal last autumn, “Raasük” is a denser, more complex incarnation of the band’s signature sound, which combines pop and folk influences with a Balkan element. The heavy use of synth in several tracks, and guest appearances by French jazz trumpeter Erik Truffaz during the opening and closing numbers, are indicative of the band’s ever more layered sound.
Like the choice of the album-launch venue, Truffaz’s presence also betrays the influence of the band’s manager, Karim Ghattas, whose Music Hall-based LibanJazz series has hosted the trumpeter on more than one occasion.
Lyrically, the album is a natural progression from the group’s earlier work, which tackles such taboo topics as poverty, security service harassment, pre-marital sex and homosexuality.
“It was some sort of reaction to everything around us,” violinist Haig Papazian says of the group’s 2008 debut. “We were just venting. We were talking about things around us, things that concern us, things that concern some of our friends ... The second album was a bit more intimate – it was more self-reflective, more about emotions and feelings and expectations.”
“Raasük” falls somewhere between the two, combining their trademark, head-on approach to controversial political and social issues with tales of love and loss. As the title of the album suggests, issues of control and personal freedom are front and center.
“It’s about the physicality of the body,” Papazian explains in a post-gig interview, “understanding somehow the body versus the emotions, versus social control. The body becomes like this tool in all these different stories. There are stories of love, of mourning ... [and] of the political situation in the region – the Arab Spring and what people expected and what’s happening. It’s very reflective in that sense.”
The songs, he stresses, still have their roots in the band member’s day-to-day experiences. “Everything that’s happening in region can’t not affect you,” he says, “so it’s part of our daily lives now, what happens in Egypt or Tunisia or Syria or Saudi Arabia.
“Right now [with] the situation in Syria everyone is afraid of the outcome. Everyone is tense ... that’s why we took this idea of using the body and making it dance ... ‘Raasük’ ... literally means ‘they made you dance,’ but in the context of the song it means ‘you’ve been choreographed. You’ve been given the exact moves and that’s how you’re supposed to dance.’”
Complementing the album is a shocking pink poster, designed by lead vocalist and lyricist Hamed Sinno. Modeled on a commercial airliner’s passenger safety card, it has a series of pictures showing a slender woman with a mass of black hair demonstrating the correct way to put on a yellow lifejacket. Arrayed in yellow plastic and a black skirt, with a belly-dancer’s bare midriff, she also demonstrates several dance moves, tossing her hair and repositioning her arms in a sexy semaphore sequence.
The crowd obligingly swayed and pogoed through the album launch, as a laid-back and confident Sinno alternated between belting out lyrics and conducting a series of sinuous center-stage gyrations. As is its wont, the band’s onstage presence was electrifying. Seemingly relaxed and completely in sync, the show was of a quality rarely rivaled locally.
Down a member since last summer’s Baalbek show – guitarist Andre Chedid having left to pursue an alternative career – Papazian reveals that the album launch also constituted the last performance with keyboard player Omaya Malaeb, who wants to focus on her career as an architect.
While Papazian says Malaeb will always be welcome back, and that there are no plans to replace her, her quiet, focused presence – a counterpoint to the testosterone-fueled performances of Sinno et al – will be sorely missed.
Luckily, there’s “Raasük.” The album’s 10 tracks range from upbeat, synth-driven dance numbers to reflective, poignant ballads that echo the group’s earlier work.
“Taxi” is characterized by a bittersweet Klezmer-inspired violin refrain that recalls “Fasateen,” a hit from the debut album, and demands the listener hum along. Narrated from the perspective of an elderly taxi driver, its existential lyrics explore the need to take control of the moment, as life is meaningless and death inevitable.
More upbeat is “Skander Maalouf,” in which Sinno’s voice achieves a sustained, poppy falsetto over Papazian’s rhythmic, sawing violin and a trip-hop influenced beat, punctuated by bursts of synth.
The title track is equally synth-soaked, though more prog-rock then trip-hop. A throaty, foot-tapping number, it depicts the plight of a man whose pulse is removed and replaced with an instrument designed to play “them” what they want to hear. Enslaved, systematized and made to dance like “them” – he chooses to dance anyway.
Alongside these up-tempo tracks are a number of introspective numbers. “Ma Tetrikini Heik,” – the wonderful Arabic rendition of Jacques Brel’s agonized 1959 love song “Ne me quitte pas,” first performed at Baalbeck last year – raises goose bumps. Underlying Sinno’s sorrowful voice is a series of smooth, simple chords on bowed bass guitar.
Equally fraught, but up-tempo, “Bahr,” has Truffaz’s trumpet crooning a caramel-smooth refrain. Addressed to the night and the sea, the lyrics beg for the release of the vocalist’s brother, lost in mourning amid the waves.
Mashrou’ Leila’s “Raasük” is available from local stores including Virgin and Librairie Antoine. For more information see www.mashrou3leila.com