Guitarist Lilas Mayassi of Lebanon explains that heavy metal is like a language to him. She explained that this was “the language of power” and “the language of resistance.”
Mayassi’s band, Slave to Sirens, has found an audience and a voice in a country where power has been abused and revolt is risky business thanks to their ability to sing in two languages.
Bracingly honest, the new documentary Sirens chronicles the extraordinary obstacles Mayassi and her group has experienced over the last few years, challenges made more difficult by their status as the first and only all-female heavy metal band in Lebanon.
In order to “provide a more real, honest, and complicated image of Arab women,” the documentary’s director, Moroccan-American filmmaker Rita Baghdadi, places the viewer squarely in the lives of the musicians.
Simultaneously, the movie is a reflection of its time and place. The story of the women is set against the backdrop of the 2019 protests that began in Lebanon on the anniversary of the 17 October revolution.
A number of issues, including the weak economy, the government’s failure to deliver essential services like electricity and sanitation, and a wave of crushing new taxes, all contributed to the unrelenting cycle of marches and protests.
An explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020 killed more than 200 people, raising tensions to an all-time high and destroying whatever sense of security the population may have had. Personally, I don’t think I’ve healed from that,” Mayassi added. “To my knowledge, nobody in Lebanon has.”
Predictably, Mayassi’s band was born out of a protest, one that occurred long before the revolution. In 2015, the guitarist was on the hunt for bandmates so she could finally realize her ambition of playing thrash metal, a particularly punishing subgenre of heavy metal.
She found out about lead guitarist Shery Bechara, a fellow young musician with aspirations similar to her own, through mutual connections.
At a gathering in Beirut to address the city’s garbage problem, they were able to speak face to face for the first time. The first topic of conversation, according to Bechara, tuned. We were both overjoyed to have finally met our perfect match.
Both musicians discovered early on that they enjoyed many of the same aspects of thrash. “The technical aspect and difficulty of the guitar playing intrigued me,” Mayassi stated. The “rapid speed and loud vocals” won over Bechara. As she put it, “it was magic.” “I forced myself to play at a higher tempo and with more intensity.”
The lyrical themes of thrash music resonated with both musicians. It’s more political, Mayassi stated. As the author puts it, “They talk about oppression. They are vocal about their disappointment, grief, wrath, and suffering. And they speak for the unheard.
They connected via their shared love of the Gibson Flying V guitar shape. Mayassi remarked, “Aside from its cool appearance, it’s a pleasant guitar to play.”
In spite of the fact that they had all previously performed with male musicians, the ladies decided to form an all-female metal band since “it’s not something that was existent in Lebanon,” as Mayassi put it. What we were looking for was a change.
Five women, including bassist Alma Doumani, drummer Tatyana Boughaba, and singer Maya Khairallah who puts her own spin on the thrash growl, made up the final roster of Slave to Sirens. The growl is always the male version, Mayassi said. It’s unusual to hear a female perspective.
In Beirut, where many bands have formed, including some with mixed-gender performers like Sandaramet, the women claim they have been welcomed with open arms.
Mayassi explains in the video that they were inspired to choose this moniker because “everyone is a slave in this life—slaves to money, to war, to society. To run away from ourselves, or so it seems.
Terminal Leeches is the only extended play (EP) published by the band so far in 2018. They penned the song’s English lyrics to appeal to listeners outside of their home country. Khairallah yells, “They feed your head with lies / Ignorance, your final demise,” in the song’s eponymous chorus. Why do you always have to obey? / Zero empathy, coming your way forever; that’s a line from their song Congenital Evil, in which they pose the question.
The ladies claim many people outside the metal scene look down on them because they are female. Mayassi noted, “There’s a lot of name-callings.” I can just hear it now: “They’ll curse us, call us sluts.”
Bechara chimed in, “But we don’t care.”
Baghdadi, the film’s director, has noted, “Metal has been vilified by many people in Lebanon.” Many have argued that Slave to Sirens is demonic in nature. It’s highly rare to see women in all-black ensembles listening to this kind of music and hanging out at such late hours.
Meanwhile, support for the group has come from beyond the region. As a result of a glowing profile in Revolver, a metal music magazine, the band was invited to perform at the 2019 Glastonbury festival. Even though not many people witnessed their relatively unheralded set, the women were overjoyed by the high-quality sound and the opportunity to play on a global stage, all of which are captured in the film.
While there is extensive rehearsal footage in the film, the band rarely performed live during the time of filming, in part because of Covid’s restrictions on filming locations. In one scenario, the ladies learn that a certain club won’t host their band because of its heavy metal stance.
Since the lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, Hamed Sinno, came out as gay, the administration of the country decided to cancel a major festival at which the band was scheduled to perform in 2019.
Mayassi is also gay, however, no one outside of her close circle of friends and bandmates knows this. She even appears in the movie with a girlfriend from Syria she had for a while, so it’s clear she’s not hiding anything.
Her relatives are still in the dark about her sexual orientation, and they won’t learn anything new from the movie. The documentary will not be released in the Middle East at this time because of the escalating anti-LGBTQ+ activities and attitudes in the region. Mayassi remarked, “There have been huge setbacks in Lebanon recently.”
Religious fundamentalists have begun attacking members of the LGBTQ+ community and those who support them. They would threaten to kill them or beat them senseless. The Interior Minister made a statement condemning “any and all LBGTQ gatherings.”
Although Mayassi claims she is no longer able to speak freely about her sexuality in her home country, she has no regrets about being upfront about it in the film. She concluded, “I made the decision, therefore there’s no going back for me.” In other words, “I have to deal with it. This is something that the entire band must face together.
The band’s closeness is depicted in the film, but so are the creative and personal difficulties that exist inside the group. Bechara finally returns to the gang after initially leaving in frustration. The ladies told us they feel closer than ever thanks to their growing maturity and the shared purpose they all feel compelled to accomplish, in a conversation we did with them simultaneously throughout Beirut via WhatsApp.
Even after a possibly career-ending loss this summer, they have resolved to keep playing together. Both their singer and drummer quit the group. They wanted to get caught up on life, as Mayassi put it. To be successful, a band must give their all. There is no middle ground.”
Doumani, a bass player, upped and moved to Orlando, Florida. While she is not physically present, she is nevertheless a vital component of the team because she records her sections from afar.
Doumani left Lebanon due to the deteriorating quality of life there, which includes a power supply so poor that it causes frequent blackouts, forcing residents to spend a fortune on backup generators or solar panels.
Doumani’s departure from Lebanon is representative of a larger diaspora that has sapped the country’s resources over the past few years. Mayassi and Bechara both claim that they wish to leave the country in the future; Mayassi to the United States and Bechara to the Netherlands.
They’ve been actively seeking new band members while recording their debut album. The women believe that “generational trauma” influences every aspect of their lives, and that this will be reflected in the new music they create together.
Mayassi added, referring to the horrible events of the 1975–1990 Lebanese civil war, “We received that from our parents and grandparents.”
Our folks expected things to be better for us. They’re telling me now, ‘No, you have it even worse,'” Bechara added.
The government is mostly to a fault in the women’s eyes. In his opinion, our politicians are the source of all evil, Mayassi stated. However, I also place some of the blame on the general populace because of their insistence on continuing to make the same mistakes. Our country was recently devastated by the same people who were elected in an election.
The revolution’s first spark of hope has so, in the women’s eyes, died down. “The revolution changed directions,” Mayassi declared.
The wave was being ridden by everyone, but it was shattered by too many competing political goals.
The women said that despite the bleakness of the current political climate, music has helped them find hope. Mayassi stated, “Playing metal gives us hope.”
The protection it offers and the resources it bestows on us are essential to our continued progress.