Mashrou Leila light up London's Roundhouse in edgy defiance

Mashrou Leila light up London's Roundhouse in edgy defiance
'This is f***ing realness!': Lebanese band Mashrou Leila kick off their first UK tour at London's edgy venue Roundhouse with their charismatic combination of heartfelt lyrics and hypnotic beats.
3 min read
09 March, 2019
Haig Papazian (L) and Hamed Sinno (R) at Mashrou Leila's London show [Getty]
Following the success of four studio albums, Lebanese four-piece Mashrou Leila kicked off their fresh European tour in London's Roundhouse with a spirit of defiance, following a string of bans in Arab countries over their LGBT advocacy that brought them close to breaking up.

They are also celebrating their tenth anniversary by releasing The Beirut School, a retrospective album of their favourite songs, plus three news offerings produced by Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard that further their recent trajectory into catchy and brooding electropop.

Despite pulling in crowds of 35,000 closer to home turf, the band seem enthralled to have almost completely filled out London’s Roundhouse, a modest 1,700 in comparison, as Hamed Sinno, the group’s singer and chief songwriter, tells the crowd, “This is f***ing realness!”

Salam, one of the album’s new upbeat additions, co-authored with Roisin Murphy - who provides sleek backing vocals - at the Banksy Hotel in Bethlehem, is the number that gets Sinno, and the crowd, energised. A keffiyeh is thrown onto the stage as Sinno skips and winds under flashing lights. The song is unashamedly political, it’s about not being able to see Palestine as most Arabs can't due to occupation, however in the group’s characteristic style, multi-layered lyrics such as ‘it’s the yearning, it’s the needing, just to meet you’ could just as easily be about picking someone up in a bar.

Sinno punctuates the setlist with philosophical musings about the songs, as well as reflections on the much publicised ups and downs of the band’s recent years. Recovering from an ill-timed bout of laryngitis, he sips from a mammoth flask of tea he brought onstage with him, at one point telling the delighted crowd, "I’m gonna give you some tea!" before recounting the mass crackdown on homosexuality in Egypt following their 2017 show in Cairo. The heartbreak caused them to split for a few months, only deciding to get back together for this tour.

The songs - new and old alike - continue to be unavoidably moulded by the decade of upheaval that unfolded parallel to the group’s meteoric rise, but clever lyrics alongside poignant themes inject artful ambiguity and depth, like all good pop music and poetry, that give the band the accessibility their world success proves. While songs like Maghawir and their latest single Cavalry make digs at nationalism, militarism and toxic masculinity, their hypnotic beats are made for the dancefloor.

Visually, too, the group have become glossier, perhaps in preparation for reaching more global audiences with their new album. The stunning Cannes prize-winning video for Roman, which plays at the show, is testament to this aesthetic evolution.

The performance also showcases the band’s ability to build up rich layers of Firas Abu Fakher's synth and strings from violinist Haig Papazian, under Sinno’s mercurial vocals and addictive marching beats from drummer Carl Gerges to stormy crescendos like the slow-burning hit
Aoede or their heartbreaking closing number Marrikh.

The crowd are here to dance to old favourites and new offerings, but just as much they are here for Mashrou Leila’s message of defiance and hope - needed right now whether you are in London, Beirut or Cairo.

Mashrou Leila are currently touring in Europe after performances in England and Scotland.

Florence is a staff writer at The New Arab currently studying for an MSc at SOAS.

Follow her on Twitter @flo_dix