For the Lebanese guitarist Lilas Mayassi, heavy metal music speaks one language. “It’s the language of power,” she said, “the language of rebellion.”
For Mayassi and her band Slave to Sirens, these two languages have given their group a voice in a country where power is rampant and rebellion is increasingly dangerous. The dramatic challenges Mayassi and her group have faced in recent years – exacerbated by their role as Lebanon’s first and only all-female heavy metal band – are chronicled in a refreshingly candid new documentary entitled Sirens. Directed by Moroccan-American filmmaker Rita Baghdadi, the documentary immerses viewers in the musicians’ world to “present a more authentic, raw and complex portrayal of Arab women,” said the director.
At the same time, the film reflects a very specific context. It sets the story of women against the background of the October 17 revolution, which has shaken Lebanon with protests since autumn 2019. The relentless succession of demonstrations and rallies was prompted by a variety of factors, from the weak economy to the government’s failure to provide basic services like electricity and sanitation, to a wave of crushing new taxes. Tensions peaked after the Beirut port explosion in 2020, which killed over 200 people and shattered any sense of security among citizens. “I don’t think I’ve healed from it personally,” Mayassi said. “I don’t think anyone in Lebanon has that.”
Not surprisingly, the seeds of Mayassi’s band were planted in a protest that took place even before the revolution. In 2015, the guitarist was looking for other players to fulfill her dream of forming a group that would play one of heavy metal’s heaviest forms: thrash. Through friends, she heard about another young musician, lead guitarist Shery Bechara, who had a similar dream. They eventually met face-to-face at a rally to protest Beirut’s garbage crisis. “The first thing we talked about was music,” Bechara said. “We were so excited that we found each other.”
Growing up, both players were attracted to many thrash elements. “I was fascinated by the technical nature of guitar playing and its difficulty,” Mayassi said.
Bechara loved “the fast tempo and the heavy vocals. It was magical,” she said. “I challenged myself to play faster and harder and harder.”
Both players drew on the lyrical themes of thrash. “They are more political,” Mayassi said. “You talk about oppression. They express frustration and sadness, anger and pain. And they give a voice to the voiceless.”
The guitarists even settled on the shape of their instruments; both play the Gibson Flying V. “Aside from looking really cool, it’s a fun guitar to play,” Mayassi said.
Although each of the women had played with men before, they preferred the all-female metal format because “it doesn’t exist in Lebanon,” Mayassi said. “We wanted something different”
They rounded out the Slave to Sirens line-up with five women including bassist Alma Doumani, drummer Tatyana Boughaba and vocalist Maya Khairallah, who uses Thrash’s signature growl but with a twist. “We always hear the male version of the growl,” Mayassi said. “It’s rare to hear a female version.”
The women say they have been embraced by Beirut’s tight-knit metal scene, which has spawned many bands, including some with mixed-gender players like Sandaramet. In the film, Mayassi says they chose their name because “everyone is a slave in this life – slave to money, to war, to society. We are all trying to escape from something inside us.”
So far in 2018 the group has only released one EP, Terminal Leeches. They wrote lyrics for it in English in order to reach audiences beyond their homeland. In the title track, Khairallah screams, “They fill your head with lies/ignorance, your ultimate downfall.” In another song, Congenital Evil, they ask, “Why do you always have to obey? / Zero degree of empathy, always reaching out to you.”
The women say many people outside of the metal community judge them harshly. “There is a lot of abuse,” Mayassi said. “They will curse us, call us bitches.”
“But we don’t care,” added Bechara.
“Metal has been stigmatized by many people in Lebanon,” said Baghdadi, the director. “A lot of people call Slave to Sirens satanic. When you have women dressed in black playing this music and going out late, it’s very against the norm.”
At the same time, the band was encouraged by people outside the region. After metal magazine Revolver wrote a long and admiring article about the band, they were invited to perform at Glastonbury Festival in 2019. The film shows footage of their spirited performance, and although few people saw the under-appreciated set, the women were thrilled with the fine sound system and the fact that they were allowed to perform internationally at all.
The film includes plenty of footage of the group performing at rehearsals, but they had few opportunities to play live during filming, partly due to Covid. In one scene we see the women realize that a venue has turned them away because they don’t play metal bands there. A major festival they were due to perform in the country in 2019 was canceled by the government after conservative groups threatened bloodshed to headliner Mashrou’ Leila, whose singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay. Mayassi is also gay, although only her friends and bandmates know about this aspect of her life. In the film, she is very open about it, even appearing with a Syrian friend she had for a while. Her family still doesn’t know about her sexuality and they won’t find out from the film either. Due to the increasing anti-LGBTQ+ action and sentiment in the region, the documentary will not be released in the Middle East at this time. “Recently there have been major setbacks in Lebanon,” Mayassi said. “Religious extremists began targeting LGBTQ+ members or those associated with them. They literally beat her up or threatened to kill her. The Home Secretary issued a statement to ban all LBGTQ-related gatherings.”
While Mayassi said she no longer feels safe speaking openly about her sexuality in her country, she doesn’t regret coming out in the film. “I made the decision, so there’s no going back for me,” she said. “I have to deal with that. All of us in the band have to deal with it, together.”
As close as the bond within the band may be, the film also captures their creative and personal tensions. At one point we see Bechara leaving the group in frustration, though they eventually reunite. In our interview, which they did together via WhatsApp from their separate homes in Beirut, the women said they now feel closer than ever, supported by more mature attitudes and a shared mission. They have vowed to carry on the band even after a potentially ruinous loss this summer. Her drummer and singer both left. “They decided they had to catch up on different things in life,” Mayassi said. “A band has to be 100% commitment. There is nothing in between.”
Bassist Doumani left the country entirely to live in Orlando, Florida. But she remains part of the group by recording her parts remotely. Doumani moved away because of the deteriorating quality of life in Lebanon, including a power grid so degraded that there are frequent blackouts, forcing citizens to seek their own expensive sources of electricity, either through personal generators or solar panels. Doumani’s departure from the country is part of a growing diaspora that has drained Lebanon in recent years. Both Mayassi and Bechara say they also plan to go at some point – the former to the US, the latter to the Netherlands. In the meantime, they keep working on their debut album and are looking for new bandmates. The new music they make together will inevitably reflect a life the women say is marked by “generational trauma”. We inherited it from our parents and grandparents,” Mayassi said, citing horrifying events like the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.
“Our parents thought we had it better. Now they’re like, ‘No, you’ve got it worse,'” Bechara said.
In large part, women blame the government. “Our politicians are the root of all evil,” Mayassi said. “But I also blame people for repeating the same mistakes over and over again. We recently had elections and they voted for the same people who ruined our country.”
As a result, women believe the hope that initially fueled the revolution has faded. “The revolution took a different course,” Mayassi said. “Everyone has tried to ride the wave, and many political agendas have ruined that wave.”
As grim as the current state of the country is, the women say they have found their own light through making music. “Playing metal gives us hope,” Mayassi said. “It offers protection and gives us what we need to keep moving forward.”
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