On the last day of the NorthSide music festival in Aarhus, Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila took to the stage for their first performance in Denmark, still jet lagged after a long flight.
While NorthSide’s diverse programme included headliners from around the world, such as British Liam Gallagher, Americans Queens of the Stone Age and Iceland's Björk, Mashrou’ Leila was the only Middle Eastern band.
The Lebanese group is one of few bands from the region to gain strong international interest, both from music festivals and media, and was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in 2014.
For the past two years the band has played several concerts around Europe, Latin America and the United States, but has been banned from playing in Middle East countries Egypt and Jordan due to its pro-LGBT stance.
Lead singer Hamed Sinno is one of very few openly gay artists in the Middle East.
The Local spoke to the band backstage about how playing in Denmark compares to the Middle East and why they’d like to see more Middle Eastern artists at the Aarhus festival.
“Honestly we do not know why we’re doing okay,” Hamed Sinno, the band’s lead singer, told The Local.
“We know many bands who discuss sort of the same things that we discuss.”
Mashrou’ Leila’s songs are known for being politically charged and discussing topics such as sexual freedom, feminism and social structures.
“There is also the whole hard work behind it, it is not just sentences we say on stage, it’s hours and hours of work, it’s a long process of us being satisfied with the work,” keyboardist and guitarist Firas Aboufakher said.
Last year, Mashrou’ Leila played a concert in Cairo, a city that used to host the band every year.
Police arrested fans after the concert for raising the rainbow flag and the state officially announced that Mashrou’ Leila would be banned from performing in Egypt again.
Also in 2017, Mashrou’ Leila was also banned from performing in Jordan, with the ministry of interior in that country citing security reasons.
“I think in a lot of ways we’re kind of blessed to have made it to ten years before getting banned,” Sinno said.
“But at this point, it’s ridiculous, we can’t play in Palestine and Syria both because of the political situation, we can’t play in Jordan and Cairo because we’re banned, we can’t play in Saudi because they just had their first concert, we can go on and on about how we cannot play to our actual audience. So we’re trying to figure out new ways to reach our audience,” the singer continued.
The band says they have realised that their audience is changing as they both gain popularity overseas — including in countries like Denmark — and are prevented from performing where their more established fan bases are.
“This is the first time that we consciously think of the audience and it’s been an interesting experience because it was something that we tried to steer away from for quite some time,” Sinno said.
The band, which has only ever sung in Arabic, is now considering writing songs in English.
“Right now we’re exploring our options in terms of writing and releasing music which is changing so quickly right now, but it is an option, I think we are actively exploring working in other languages and other styles and working differently,” Aboufakher said.
“I think when we first started [in 2008, ed.] we didn’t really want to be musicians, we just wanted to make music to say what we wanted to say,” Sinno said.
“At this point, it took a lot of changes for us in our lives and in our approach to things and in our perspective of what we want in life,” he added.