A swaying violin is what you'll follow first. Next, maybe a tambourine, and then a voice, low but elastic and billowing. These are the sounds of Mashrou' Leila, and you would be lucky only for a moment of wonder not to speak Arabic.
It was a late discovery of mine, this project. Over red wine we traded music videos, my favourite Turkish song, their favourite Arabic. Fasateen (Dresses) is its name, and the video opens with a man, round brown eyes and stubble, sitting in an old car filling with fallen symbols of marriage and speaking, my friends translated, about an old lover. Za-ka-ray-la ... Remember when ... and then they piss into the wind to the credits. I sent myself an email, would never remember the name otherwise.
A few days later I was memorizing phonetics. Moving a hand over and over the rough wall of a foreign language.
A few weeks later I was running on a wide, white stretch of pedestrian pathway wrapped around the Caspian Sea. The music sharpened everything around. The sunlight against the water danced violently. I knew the meaning though not the poetry, and every inflection seemed to carry it.
A few months later a train rocked north along Milwaukee Avenue and in it I was singing quietly but wordlessly. Chicago was hot, without wind, and most of us glistened in line in the fading sun outside the brick lowrise of Logan Square Auditorium. The entrance cleaved an outdoor patio in two, and earlybirds sat on a stairwell leading into the concert hall. The women behind me, a handful in hijab and all in their twenties, chatted fluidly between English and Arabic. Like other groups in front as we shuffled in, a few split off to have IDs checked for a liquor bracelet, before we all reassembled into a glass half-empty-half-full kind of audience.
The opening band made us dance, and we didn't know it but the five members of Mashrou' Leila watched our backs from the balcony before slipping forwards and onstage. Hamed Sinno, the vocalist and brown-eyed lover in Fasateen, said it was good to see our energy -- they weren't used to a crowd so small. It was like an echo of Belgian musician Stromae, who filmed himself as a street performer in New York City following clips of a hundreds-strong European crowd. For Mashrou' Leila that audience power lies roughly between Barcelona and Beirut.
An openly gay frontman, an Armenian violinist, a drummer, guitarists, poets, and composers -- they're either nothing like you'd expect of Lebanese musicians, or everything. Sending the rest grinning, Sinno swooned when his man on keyboard layered down to a slim white tee.
Chicago was the second stop on the Ibn El Leil (Son of the night) tour in North America. It was before the Orlando attack on the Pulse nightclub. After it, the performance might have been melancholy. Maybe with a different line-up too, more ballads mixed with the anthems. They have a talent for mirroring events. A car bomb exploded in Beirut while the band recorded their third album, Raasük (They made you dance), in Montreal in 2012, prompting a rewrite of title track Lil Watan (For the nation): "Whenever you dare to ask about the worsening situation, they silence you with their slogans about all the conspiracies being woven for us."
In the calm heat of early June, in a revived ballroom taking cashing only, it felt like seeing a band with an underground following. Enough space to sway. Men holding their men or women. Women holding theirs. One, two songs from Ibn El Leil and then, something from our first album, Sinno said, and we cheered, guilty of the pressure Gord Downie captured, to "quickly, follow the unknown with something more familiar." The swoon of familiarity carried us two steps closer to stage. Za-ka-ray-la ...
Despite the downsized Chicago audience, performing underground in Lebanon was years ago, back when Mashrou' Leila (The overnight project) formed at the American University of Beirut in 2008. Now, when Jordan bans the group from playing because of immorality, as the kingdom did for a few days in April, international media run the story.
The band carefully sidesteps any caricature of its music as a voice for the environment they work in. Like the Arab Spring in 2011 and Lebanon's head start in 2005. Or laws that criminalize homosexuality, and taboos that separate sexual freedom and gender equality from popular strains of Arab and Muslim identity. Speaking to Vice, guitarist Firas Abou Fakher said, "it would be crippling to actually try to speak for others the way others often assume we should."
But kinetic and subtle revolutions, and all their countercurrents, are there in the lyrics. Intolerance elevates their art too, so that ordinary words are subversive. Kalam (S/He), set in a bar, is about getting laid when gender or identity are covert. Shim El Yasmine (Smell the jasmine) describes a man's beloved who can't become his husband, can't take the first of a hundred steps before that to meet family.
Mashrou' Leila is revolutionary wherever love and sex are political. And try finding somewhere they're not.
The band lands in Toronto for Pride and will find a country still politically charged with the sexual lives of its citizens. After skipping a beat, Toronto has a mayor who shows up at Pride again. Ontario has its first openly gay premier. Canada has a prime minister who oversaw the first raising of the rainbow flag on Parliament Hill, and an opposition party that voted last month to be neutral on same sex marriage.
Change is slow, and Toronto has a bit of every forward and bigoted thinking from around the world. These fragments are found in the native population, and among the more than 50 per cent of residents who are foreign-born. Pride is a brand new revolution every year. A young Namibian who arrived as a refugee told me that Toronto's Pride unmoored him - he was not prepared for its intensity. He only ever hid his sexual self. Here, he faced internal havoc first before any sort of peace.
The Canadian leg of the tour also arrives shortly after a resettled fan base of Syrians. Mashrou' Leila is beloved across the Middle East, though it's not always easy to show. Taboos, and wars too, prevent it. Neighbouring Syrians have their hometown concerts postponed indefinitely. Even before civil war began in 2011, notes of irreverent anger and powerlessness before checkpoints or less material barriers would be familiar. Today, Syria's warzone cities would share the quality, as Sinno described Beirut, of "making you feel like you're tied up to a floatation device and can only move with the waves that move you."
In Toronto, Mashrou' Leila will find a crowd with a diversity of intimate connections to their sounds and soul. Some still feeling weightless, in need of an anchor, or at least a violin.
Mashrou' Leila will perform at Pride Toronto's Yalla Bara (Come out, get out) at Wellesley Stage on July 2.
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