At 9 PM on Thursday night, a stretch of sidewalk in Montreal's Gay Village neighborhood thronged with stylish twentysomethings speaking the distinctive Arabic-English-French patois of the city’s Lebanese immigrant community.
The diaspora had turned out in force for the North American concert debut of Mashrou3 Leila, the Beirut-based rock band that has attracted a passionate following across the Arab world for its fusion of local and Western musical styles and culturally transgressive lyrics that capture the zeitgeist of the region’s rapidly changing societies.
Mashrou3 Leila formed in 2008 during a late-night jam session at the American University of Beirut. They released their first album the following year and began to build a following outside of their hometown, playing major concerts and festivals in Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf countries, and Egypt. In 2011, they released their second album (an EP) and expanded their concert circuit to Serbia, the Netherlands, France, Tunisia, and Switzerland.
The sold-out Montreal show celebrated the completion of recording of the band's upcoming 10-track album with a Montreal-based Lebanese producer. During two hour-long sets, they played a series of hits from their previous records, new tracks from their upcoming release, and Arabic-language covers of Western popular songs.
The band's musical virtuosity was on full display in the intimate 750-capacity club, an elegant crimson- and gold-painted former theatre. The seven musicians played tightly together, producing the band's trademark multi-layered sound. In addition to their usual instruments – bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, violin – they experimented with new sounds. During a performance of "Ne me quitte pas," Jaques Brel's 1950s French ballad, two band members played mouth organs while a third fiddled his electric guitar with a violin bow. In the introduction to the unreleased track "3a Babo," frontman Hamed Sinno distorted his voice through a small megaphone.
The group captivated the Montreal audience with its infectious enthusiasm. Sinno danced enthusiastically across the stage, while violinist (and de-facto second frontman) Haig Papazian fiddled furiously or kept time with his violin bow in the air. During upbeat hits like “Raksit Leila” (Leila’s Dance) and "Fasateen" (Dresses), the audience danced, clapped, and sang alongside the band.
At times, Mashrou3 Leila blurred the line between performer and audience. They tossed oreo cookies and a paper airplane with members' signatures into the crowd. Sinno guided the audience in two sing-alongs and, during "Fasateen," held the microphone to a particularly enthusiastic fan in the front row. During the encore performance of the downbeat "Inni Mneeh," Sinno sat on a monitor at the front of the stage, hand-shaking distance from the crowd.
Sinno also charmed the audience with his onstage humor. After playing two downbeat songs, the unreleased “Bashuf” (I See) and popular “Shim al-Yasmine” (Smell the Jasmine), the singer joked that the evening had become “a Lebanese soap opera.” He introduced “Latlit” (Gossip) with a lengthy Arabic-language monologue parodying Lebanese gossip about the band and "Wajih" in comedically broken French. And, throughout the evening, he theatrically flirted with violinist Papazian onstage. (Sinno is openly gay; Papazian is not.)
Sinno’s sexuality was part and parcel of Mashrou3 Leila’s cultural and political liberalism, on full display at the concert. The band dedicated “Fasateen” to a mixed-religious couple in the audience, who Sinno advised not to “give two flying fucks about what your parents think” to loud applause. They performed a new song titled “Li al-Watan” (For the Homeland), which Sinno announced had been recently rewritten to reflect “the shit going on back home,” in reference to the recent wave of sectarian strife in Lebanon.
A few minutes after the concert's end, Sinno and Papazian re-emerged to greet fans. Sitting on the edge of the stage, they signed autographs and posed for photographs and videos while chatting casually with fans in Arabic and English. The musicians and their audience had grown up 10,000 kilometers apart, but the music of Mashrou3 Leila had rendered this distance irrelevant.