‘It’s the language of rebellion’: the story of Slave to Sirens, the all-female Lebanese metal band

In a new documentary called Sirens, the band – who are the first and only all-female thrash band in Lebanon – talk about their difficult road to success

To Lebanese guitarist Lilas Mayassi, heavy metal music speaks a language. “It’s the language of power,” she said, “the language of rebellion.”

For Mayassi and her band, Slave to Sirens, those two languages have given her group a voice in a country where power has been widely abused and rebellion has become increasingly dangerous. The dramatic challenges Mayassi and her group have faced over the last few years – exacerbated by their role as the first, and only, all-female heavy metal band in Lebanon – are chronicled in a bracingly frank new documentary titled Sirens. Directed by Moroccan American film-maker Rita Baghdadi, the doc immerses the viewer in the world of the musicians, the better to “present a more authentic, raw and complex portrayal of Arab women”, the director said.

At the same time, the film reflects a very specific context. It sets the women’s story against the backdrop of the 17 October revolution which has roiled Lebanon with protests since the fall of 2019. The relentless succession of marches and rallies was sparked by a wide range of factors, from the feeble state of the economy to the government’s failure to provide basic services like electricity and sanitation, to a wave of crushing new taxes. Tensions reached a peak after the Beirut port explosion in 2020 which killed over 200 people, in the process ending any sense of safety the citizens had. “I don’t think I’ve personally healed from that,” Mayassi said. “I don’t think anyone in Lebanon has.”

Unsurprisingly, the seeds of Mayassi’s band were planted at a protest, one which even pre-dated the revolution. In 2015, the guitarist was looking for other players to fulfill her dream of forming a group that would play one of the hardest forms of heavy metal: thrash. Through friends she heard about another young musician, lead guitarist Shery Bechara, who had a similar dream. They finally met face-to-face at a rally to protest the garbage crisis in Beirut. “The first thing we talked about was music,” Bechara said. “We were so excited that we found each other.”

Growing up, both players found themselves drawn to many elements of thrash. “I was fascinated by the technical nature of the guitar playing and the difficulty of it,” Mayassi said.

Bechara loved “the fast pace and the harsh vocals. It was magical,” she said. “I challenged myself to play faster and faster and harder and harder.”

Both players related to thrash’s lyrical themes. “They’re more political,” said Mayassi. “They speak about oppression. They express frustration and sadness and anger and pain. And they give voice to the voiceless.”

The guitarists even bonded on the shape of their instruments; both play the Gibson Flying V. “Apart from it looking really cool, it’s a comfortable guitar to play,” Mayassi said.

While each of the women had played with men before, they favored the all-female metal format because “it’s not something that was existing in Lebanon”, Mayassi said. “We wanted something different.”

They finalized the lineup of Slave to Sirens with five women, including bassist Alma Doumani, drummer Tatyana Boughaba and singer Maya Khairallah, who uses thrash’s trademark growl but with a twist. “We always hear the male version of the growl,” Mayassi said. “It’s rare to hear a feminine version.”

The women say they’ve been embraced by the tight metal scene in Beirut, 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 – slaves to money, to war, society. We’re all trying to escape something within us.”

So far, the group has released just one EP, Terminal Leeches, in 2018. They wrote lyrics for it in English in order to reach an audience beyond their homeland. In the title track, Khairallah screams: “They fill your head with lies / Ignorance, your ultimate demise.” In another song, Congenital Evil, they ask: “Why do you always have to obey? / Zero degrees of empathy, forever coming your way.”

The women say that many people outside the metal community judge them harshly. “There’s a lot of name-calling,” Mayassi said. “They’ll curse us, call us sluts.”

“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 staying out late at night, it’s very much against the norm.”

At the same time, the band has received encouragement from people outside the region. After the metal magazine Revolver wrote a long and admiring feature about the band they were invited to play the Glastonbury festival in 2019. The film features footage of their spirited performance, and though few people saw the under-publicized set, the women were thrilled by the fine sound system and the fact that they got to perform internationally at all.

The film features plenty of footage of the group performing at rehearsals, but they had few opportunities to play live during the period of shooting, in part due to Covid. In one scene, we see the women discover that a venue has turned them down because they won’t allow metal bands to play there. A major festival they were meant to appear at in the country in 2019 was cancelled by the government following threats of bloodshed from conservative groups over the headliner, Mashrou’ Leila, whose singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay. Due to rising anti-LGBTQ+ actions and sentiment in the region, the documentary won’t be released in the Middle East at this time. “There have been major set-backs in Lebanon lately,” said Mayassi. “Religious extremists started targeting LGBTQ+ members or anyone affiliated with them. They would literally beat them down or threaten to kill them. The minister of the interior issued a statement to ban all gatherings related to LBGTQ.”

Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara.
Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara. Photograph: Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

As tight as the bond within the band may be, the film also captures their creative and personal tensions. At one point, we see Bechara leave the group in frustration, though they eventually reunite. In our interview, conducted jointly via WhatsApp from their separate homes in Beirut, the women said they now feel closer than ever, aided by maturing attitudes and a shared mission. They have vowed to continue the band even after suffering a potentially ruinous loss this summer. Their drummer and their singer both left. “They decided they needed to catch up on different things in life,” Mayassi said. “A band has to be 100% commitment. There’s no 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 worsening quality of life in Lebanon, including a power grid so degraded, it results in frequent blackouts, forcing citizens to seek their own expensive sources of electricity through either personal generators or solar panels. Doumani’s exit from the country is part of a growing diaspora that has drained Lebanon over the last few years. Both Mayassi and Bechara say they are also planning to eventually leave – the former to the US, the latter to the Netherlands. In the meantime, they’re continuing to work on their debut album as they look for new bandmates. The new music they make together will inevitably reflect a life the women say is informed by “generational trauma. We inherited it from our parents and our grandparents,” Mayassi said, referencing horrific events like the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

“Our parents thought we would have it better. Now they’re saying, ‘No, you have it even worse,’” said Bechara.

In large part, the women blame the government. “Our politicians are the root of all evil,” said Mayassi. “But I also blame the people because they repeat the same mistakes over and over. We had a recent election, and they elected the same people who ruined our country.”

As a result, the women believe the hope that first fueled the revolution has faded. “The revolution took another course,” Mayassi said. “Everyone was trying to ride the wave and a lot of political agendas ruined that wave.”

However dark the current state of the country may be, the women say they’ve found their own light by making music. “Playing metal gives us hope,” Mayassi said. “It provides a shelter and gives us what we need to keep moving forward.”

  • Sirens opens in New York on 30 September and in Los Angeles on 7 October with other cities to follow and a UK release yet to be announced


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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