Slave to Sirens: The fierce rise of Lebanon’s first all-female metal band

This feature was originally published by Revolver Magazine.

Photo by Richard Sammour, courtesy of Revolver Magazine

January 15, 2019

In a small, soundproof rehearsal room in the mountains just outside Beirut, Lebanon’s first all-female metal band, Slave to Sirens, is getting ready to make some noise. Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, the five-piece’s lead and rhythm guitarists, respectively, unzip cases to reveal their V-shaped axes, and vocalist Maya Khairallah warms up with a practice growl, the raw sound ripping out of her small frame with startling volume. Bassist Alma Doumani is tuning up her instrument while drummer Tatyana Boughaba shakes her thick, waist-length hair out of the way, adjusts her leather jacket and gives her sticks a twirl.

They launch straight into “Salome,” a new track written for their debut album, which they hope to release this year. Within seconds, they are in full swing, tight and focused, Bechara and Mayassi swaying and nodding in time to the fast-paced thrash beat, Boughaba drumming so frantically that one of her sticks flies out of her hands and a friend who has come to watch the rehearsal scrabbles to return it to her. Outside, the twinkling city lights form a glittering path along the Mediterranean coast below. It’s a Friday night and rush-hour traffic from the city carves a path up the mountainside, horns blaring as cars swerve around blind corners at top speed, drivers racing to leave Beirut behind and return to mountain villages for the weekend. The studio, filled with the pounding beat of thrash metal, is one of very few places where the din of the city cannot penetrate.

Formed in late 2015, Slave to Sirens have swiftly earned the respect of Lebanon’s small but impassioned metal scene, thanks to a combination of skill, inventiveness and sheer hard work. Their determination to succeed has helped them to overcome the myriad challenges of producing metal music in a country with limited infrastructure and audiences, and a systematic misunderstanding of metal culture and what it represents — made worse by the fact that they are women.

“I was 12 or 13 when I started listening to metal. I like the music. It’s heavy, it’s aggressive, it’s different from mainstream music,” says Doumani, whose curly shoulder-length hair is dyed a deep burgundy. “If I say to people that I’m in a band playing metal, it’s ‘Oh, you’re a girl playing metal. Girls should be girly and Hello Kitty,'” she continues, eliciting a burst of laughter from her bandmates. “We have chemistry. It’s not just business. We come and play and we’re friends, too. Plus, it’s an adrenaline rush to show people that you’re a woman and you can do what men can do.”

Lebanon is a small but diverse country, one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan in the Middle East, with thriving Christian and Muslim communities living side by side. Yet metal fans have long struggled with the more conservative elements of Lebanese society. In the 1990s, Christian religious institutions turned against metal culture, linking it to the suicide of a teenage boy and calling for a ban on all metal music. Albums by bands including Metallica and Nirvana were banned from the country and confiscated at customs. Metalheads who went out wearing band T-shirts or clothing with skull prints were accused of being Satanists and arrested. In recent years, attitudes towards the metal community have relaxed and a small, but tight-knit local scene has developed. But misconceptions can still prove dangerous. Last year, the wedding of two metal fans who wore black and served a cake decorated with skulls triggered an angry backlash after pictures circulated on social media, with many people accusing the couple — who were married in a church — of being Satan worshippers.

Slave to Sirens’ members have faced some of the same accusations, although they emphasize that things are rapidly improving. Metal music is no longer banned, and fans are no longer at risk of arbitrary arrest. The members of Slave to Sirens are proud headbangers, and with their piercings, tattoos, leather jackets and all-black clothes, they stand out in Beirut, where women are more likely to dye their hair blonde than green and to wear stilettos than biker boots.

Undaunted by social stigma and misplaced judgement, the women speak passionately about how working together has helped them to grow, and their mission to empower other women to follow their dreams. “Regardless of any negative things that people are going to say, people who don’t understand what we’re doing, we just shrug it off. We’ve reached that state because if we’re going to keep focusing on these kinds of things that’s just going to hold us back,” says Khairallah.

Boughaba, an accomplished drummer who was in several other bands before joining Slave to Sirens, says that the difficulties they face have helped them grow. “I like the fact that we’re all girls and we had to face lots of challenges together and learn a lot. Musically, I changed and evolved a lot in this band. I didn’t see that in other bands, so I’m really satisfied. I feel like we’re going somewhere,” she says.

Her identity as a metalhead has been particularly challenging, due to her family background. When I ask if her parents were upset about her love of metal, which she discovered at the age of 11, she lets out a long drawn-out, multi-syllable “Ooooh,” and her bandmates burst into laughter. “Here’s a sneak peek. Before they got married, my mum was a nun and my dad was studying to be a priest,” she says. “And then they met.”

“Tatyana is the devil worshipper,” jokes Mayassi.

“It was hard at first,” the drummer says. “I had to go through a lot of debates with them for it to work out eventually. But at the end of the day it’s not their decision. I’m not waiting for their approval … Me wearing black was a big problem for my dad. He was like, ‘Black is the color of the devil. You should wear red, white, pink.'”

Boughaba is still a student, finishing up a degree in psychology. Doumani is also at university, studying filmmaking. Khairallah and Bechara, who have already graduated, work part-time in a bakery shop and a veterinary clinic, respectively, while Mayassi, who recently finished a degree in music, is teaching at a primary school. All five of them are serious about turning Slave to Sirens into a full-time career.

The band came together after Bechara and Mayassi met in the summer of 2015, at an anti-government protest spurred by long-running mismanagement of the country’s waste, which led to garbage piling up on the streets for weeks on end, rotting in the summer heat. They quickly discovered a shared love of thrash and death metal and began to hand-pick kick-ass women with a shared vision to form the country’s first all-female metal outfit.

When they meet for rehearsal on a warm November evening, they all look the part. Khairallah has just dyed the underside of her hair green and proudly shows it off to her bandmates. Bechara, whose long, ruler-straight locks only partially conceal the spikes in her ears — matching the two through her lower lip — says she wants to dye hers silver, and the two argue good-naturedly for a few minutes about which of them should have first crack at the shade.

In spring 2018, Slave to Sirens released their first EP, Terminal Leeches, featuring four original tracks exploring subjects from the evils of animal abuse (“Humanesticide”) to the wicked instincts that make humans wage war (the title track) to the seductive power of music and the mythical creatures that inspired their band name.

“Everyone talks about politics in thrash, so we want to do something different,” says Mayassi. “Our focus is mainly the human being, the things man does: evil, corruption, war, poverty … Any human action that ruins the environment, we write about that.”

From the beginning, the women have met twice a week to write and rehearse. Their shared dedication to the band is clear. Mayassi even jokes that “boys are lazy,” based on their previous experiences in groups that didn’t prioritize practice and progress. For the last few months, they have been working on transforming a room in a rented apartment into their own private practice space so that they can dedicate more time to working on their debut full-length.

“Compared to when we started we’ve really matured, musically, so our album is going to be a bit more mature,” says Mayassi.

“We’ve bonded more over the last few months than we did before, musically and friend-wise,” adds Khairallah.

“Yeah, a lot of cat fights,” Mayassi fires back, to laughter.

The women are clearly close friends, constantly interjecting and adding to each other’s words. Talking to them as a group is a bit like chatting with a hydra — one of them picks up whenever another leaves off, but all of them share the same excitement and dedication to their band and its message. Working on the album has meant that they have found new ways to collaborate, each of them contributing ideas for compositions and lyrics.

“The themes are still undecided, but one of the songs is based on a play about Salome, so it’s basically about human desire and how it can lead you to bad things when it’s too extreme,” says Khairallah. “Another song is kind of illusionary. It’s about a man in a dream, but he’s not actually dreaming. He’s being reborn in a dream … We try to take inspiration from different things, like H. P. Lovecraft. Books, psychology, stuff like that.”

After initial surprise at seeing “a bunch of girls” onstage playing pure thrash, the male-dominated local metal community has embraced the group, offering encouragement and support, but despite their talent and growing local following, they struggle to get regular gigs. Most venues in Lebanon will not host metal bands for fear the noise will upset neighbors, they explain. The small scene also means that few venues have sound systems capable of adapting to their setup and that local labels and producers don’t understand their music.

“We don’t have metal labels here. It’s all Oriental and Arabic music,” clarifies Mayassi. “No one would be interested in our kind of music.”

The lack of local metal infrastructure means that they have had to forge their own path and learn by doing. Khairallah, whose practiced growl now lends their songs a distinctive flavor, had never tried the vocal technique before she auditioned for the group. With the help of YouTube tutorials by well-known coaches such as Melissa Cross, and feedback from her band members, she has gradually developed her range and capabilities. And although Mayassi took the lead on writing the lyrics for the EP, Khairallah is working with her on lyrics for their album, pouring most of her time and energy into the band.

“I love making music, especially when you’re in a group where you understand what each other want and you all want the same thing,” she says. “I was in a band before and I didn’t really have much say in how the music went. I was singing in a different style and I was enjoying it because it was something new for me, but at the end of the day it wasn’t satisfying. But then when I joined Slave to Sirens it was like a whole new world and I felt like I fit right there. I know that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Having overcome so many hurdles already, they are undaunted by the long road ahead. “Finishing our album is the target for now, but we hope to get out of here and to get signed to a record label and to take this band on a professional track. We want to do this every day,” says Mayassi. “We just want to make music. Lots of bands struggle at first and then eventually they make it. So never give up — that’s our motto.”

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