WRITER: Nadine Khalil
Yasmine Hamdan isn’t just another rebellious Arab pop star. More of an experimental rocker, her progressive, contemporary take on Arabic music includes creative, lyrical renditions of Arab classics laced with punk rock references and electronica.
This could be a love story. As in sometimes, you meet someone and it marks you forever. “I always say that I met Asmahan in a bar. Then, something happened,” she tells me. “Her vision, desire and freedom. I fell in love with that.” This could be a love story between a man and a woman. “I felt her songs were written for me, I wanted to make them mine. Like when you fall in love with something so much that you need to put it on.”
It could be, but it isn’t. Rather, it’s the story of a fascination of one woman for another woman of a different time, of a contemporary singer for a diva’s voice. That woman in question can be seen as many women at once. Here in Beirut’s Sporting Club, turbulent sea crashing against the rocks below, she is Yasmine Hamdan, queen of the city’s underground music scene, which was virtually nonexistent when Hamdan started singing, as co-founder of Soapkills in the 1990s and later, in the electro-pop outfit Y.A.S.
Now that she’s gone solo as Yasmine Hamdan, she is just that – herself. In other ways, she is also Asmahan, Umm Kulthoum, Shadia and any number of other early to mid-20th century legendary Arab women who inspired this region’s musical golden age.
Working with French producer, Marc Collin, the man behind Nouvelle Vague (her last album, ‘Arabology’, released in 2009, was produced by Italian-Afghani producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, who’s best known for collaborations with Madonna), her latest release is entitled ‘Ya Nass’ or ‘Oh People’.
As I observe Hamdan, her voice strained and husky, her eyes, large and smoky with black liner slightly smudged at the edges, contrasting against her pale skin, her long hair tossed back and windswept. Her petite frame may be surprising but that’s probably because everyone seems smaller when they aren’t on film. And she is stunning, in a bare way, her demeanour brooding when she lapses into more philosophical, existentialist moments. Right now, she’s talking to me about her life as a series of beautiful accidents.
“You meet interesting people and start projects that become your babies. Some die before birth, barely leaving any traces and others, you carry them with you.” One of those recent “accidents” included meeting American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch at the Marrakech film festival a few years ago, which led to a cameo appearance in his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, in which Hamdan performs her song, ‘Hal.’
“I believe there are people you find, they’re like angels guiding you,” she says. “There’s something magnetic about it. There’s no narrative or formula, it’s an adventure. We don’t know why we are here, you’re always searching.”
Apologising for having to whisper because of a sore throat, she continues her story. First, there was Soapkills. Hamdan tells me that she always had a secret desire to become a singer and once she turned 20, she started to pursue it seriously.
“Soapkills was my starting point but I began in a place where there were no musicians like us. Me and Zeid Hamdan (her partner at the time), we made things happen. I was this angry teenager who was also very free. It was thrilling in a way.”
“That’s not to say I wasn’t alienated from my environment,” she continues, “I was very marginal. But I didn’t feel comfortable with the world around me anyway. I was confused about who I was. It wasn’t clear where my home was.”
Hamdan grew up between Abu Dhabi, Greece and Kuwait, which her family fled during the Gulf war in 1991 to return to Lebanon, a country finally achieving a semblance of peace after the civil war. She was studying psychology and performing songs by PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Portishead, as well as her own. That was when she ‘met’ the legendary and long-dead Syrian-Egyptian singer, Asmahan.
“After I heard Asmahan’s voice, I remembered how my great-aunt used to sing her songs when I was a child. Her songs accompanied my childhood. They make you dream, she was so avant-garde for her time. I went to Hamra to find her cassettes and began discovering other Arab musicians from the same period. I was still composing in English at the time but it made me desire my culture,” she explains. “And with this pride, I wanted to show it to the world, Then, I spent one year at the conservatory here and discovered that Arabic music was only an oral tradition until 1932. For me, Arabic music totally transcends technique, I didn’t really learn it formally.”
After spending about 12 years in Beirut and releasing two Soapkills albums, Hamdan decided to go to Paris in 2002 feeling her way as she does, intuitively. “I had no security. I just needed to be there. I had an overwhelming urge to enlarge my world, to evolve as a human being.”
“As an artist, you spend a lot of time alone and life humbles you in a way because you don’t always know where you are going. I’m actually not ambitious, my first priority is to remain true to myself. I mean, I’m aware of the social facades but the point is that you are the only person you will be for the rest of your life.”
As Hamdan talks about solitude and solitary obsessions, I imagine her in a room in Paris, surrounded by her Arabic music cassettes. As the story goes, Paris is where Hamdan first encountered Mirwais, through her husband - another one of those lucky accidents - and the idea of combining Arabic melodies with electronic music was born. Hamdan is married to Palestinian filmmaker, Elia Suleiman, who featured a couple of Soapkills’ tracks in his award-winning film, Divine Intervention.
Her partnership with Mirwais resulted in catchy Arabic tunes and a bit of a diva-esque show. “Our collaboration opened a lot of doors. It was confrontational for me because I didn’t have complete freedom and I was stepping out of my comfort zone from being the most underground to the most exposed, signing with Universal and so on. There was a huge public for this kind of music and it was very nourishing to be in an unfamiliar environment. But I needed to free be also,” she stops for a second. “I get bored easily.”
The honest way in which she speaks is refreshing and a bit surprising. She was an idol, for me and many other girls my age, as we grew up in tumultuous Beirut. Her music was a way for us to merge our Western education with the times we were living in, the punk rock, trip hop and her nonconformist use of Arabic was so snappy and cool, so ironic and sharp, that I find it hard to believe I’m sat here chatting with her today.
“After releasing Arabology, I was already thinking about my next project. It helped me prepare for going solo.” She then looks thoughtful and I notice that she has this kind of delicate beauty that you cannot quite grasp, it’s a quiet beauty, fragile and almost melancholic in its nature. As is she. “You know, as an adolescent, I used to be very shy, almost autistic,” she continues, “Performing was a way for me to exorcise this shyness and get out of my interior world by jumping out into the open sea.”
“I write songs but I also write about characters. I imagine them so the songs become alive. It’s not karaoke that I’m doing.” I catch a first glimpse of how she transforms on stage during her later performance at Music Hall, where the contemplative woman I spoke to earlier becomes a sultry singer with a wild stage presence.
Dressed simply in faded black jeans and a black(er) t-shirt, she draws on the complexities of Arabic music in an unconventional way, her crooning voice set against post-punk rock beats, synthesizers and ambient noise, with a bit of indie and folk thrown in for good measure. Singing through two microphones to create aural distortions, I watch as she becomes her characters.
Hamdan creates an eclectic musical universe in her entrancing moves, from subtle belly dancing to fits of head-banging and girl power. With her songs of political protest, songs of lament and songs of love, her show is sexy and nostalgic, languid and forceful, erratic and steady, muddy and sharp.
You might think that in its moodiness and playfulness, her music is a form of pop culture but that would be an oversight. There’s social criticism and political commentary in the way she reappropriates Arab traditions and in how she moves from one dialect to another, singing in Kuwaiti, Iraqi, Egyptian, Palestinian and Lebanese. It’s anything but mainstream.
I remember when I tried to ask Hamdan how she would characterise her own music and she replied, “I don’t like definitions. And I don’t see borders between languages. I mean, I was educated in French schools, so I’m most fluent in French. I’ve always listened to all kinds of music, whether it’s Pakistani, Somali, Iraqi or Kuwaiti, I listen to the idea and the emotion. Language is important but it shouldn’t be a checkpoint.”
“Sometimes, I fixate on just one word and base a whole song around it - words have their own shapes, colours, weight and rhythm too, you know. I like switching dialects too, it gives freedom and possibilities.”
Geography might not matter much but even if Hamdan’s electronic reworkings of old Arabic songs diverge from their origins, they are still staunchly rooted in a particular context. A little like she is herself, as fluid as she is grounded, a blinking star that changes shape depending on how you look at it.