“I just got my French passport,” says Yasmine Hamdan with a small burst of excitement. It is the night before her appearance at The Music Room in Dubai.
“I’m attached to Paris actually, but I do not want to belong,” she says as we discuss the concepts of belonging and inclusion. “I would rather live on the margin, and I feel more comfortable living there, not belonging to a place. Because I cannot pretend that I know how to do that. I’m not sure I know what it’s like to belong to one place.”
A myth exists around Hamdan. She performs at what some commentators have described as the “intersection of sexy electronica and iconic Arab tradition”. She is controversial in some quarters for this very reason. She is not scared to say things, or to talk about sexuality or eroticism, she is also unwilling to let herself be controlled by the codes and rules of traditional Arabic music. In short, she is unwilling to censor or to be something that she is not.
The starting point for many of the lyrics on her new album, Al Jamilat, emerged from encounters with ex-criminals, perverts, war fighters, gigolos, poets and drug addicts, all of whom have, admits Hamdan, inspired her in some way. “Their anger echoes a sense of hopelessness, and the mixed feelings I have regarding the ongoing turmoil in Lebanon and the region.”
Is Al Jamilat an angry album?
“No, no, but anger can give you a creative impulse,” she says. “I think we’re all angry in some places, in some ways, and we deal with it. But no, this album is very much about tenderness and womanhood. It’s also very much about colours and sensuality and travelling and movement. But I have some songs that – not on an immediate level – are more political and more social and, through my characters, say things about tormented people who live a certain violence. It’s more related to corruption, to the sad things we’re living today.”
Is this in relation to Beirut?
“It’s in relation to Beirut, but also to the state of the world in general. I don’t think Beirut is an exception. The world is becoming – for some people – more and more difficult to be in. I can feel that around me, at least. My characters are Lebanese but they could be in India or Pakistan or any other place in the world.
“This relationship and this dialogue that I initiate inside my music – with where I come from, with my roots, with this culture – is essential. Through music you can resist and through music you can challenge yourself and challenge the things around you. And through music you can learn. It’s painful sometimes, because I’m not happy with what’s going on and sometimes I get very depressed when I open the news and when I see what’s happening. So I’ve decided to push myself towards the margins a little bit, because I don’t want this darkness to take over.”
Hamdan’s greatest asset has always been her voice. A performer, lyricist, composer and actress, she is an example of what is possible within the realms of alternative Arabic music. For her debut solo album, Ya Nass, she included her own compositions as well as interpretations of favoured classics, picking out certain melodies and choruses, playing with various Arabic dialects, and rendering sometimes complex and tonal Arabic songs in simple chords and pop tones. Whether you liked the end result or not depended on your definition of what Arabic music is.
She described Ya Nass as her personal, modern take on Arabic pop. Al Jamilat (‘The Beautiful Ones’) in contrast is an exploration of the mutations at work within the Arab world.
In notes she wrote for the Brussels-based record label Crammed Discs, on which the album is to be released, she explains much of the thinking behind Al Jamilat and her songwriting. “When I am composing, I want to explore different possibilities of textures and grooves together, regardless of where they come from or what they refer to, regardless of codes and formats,” she wrote. “I am interested in exploring encounters where worlds meet, beyond musical genres or musical worlds. I like to find this place where the mix becomes intuitive, and where the encounter with Arabic music becomes effortless. It fits me, because I belong to different places, I’ve lived different cultures and I have learned to appropriate and create from a hybridised point of view. I actually see that as a creative asset, something rather liberating. I think being plural and having mixed identities is a state in which many people find themselves today.”
The end result is a sometimes trippy meandering through various elements of global music, although Hamdan’s vocals anchor the album firmly in the Arab world. Her voice has been many things over the years. Sensuous, deep, hypnotic, gentle, smoky, restless. Here it veers between the sensual and the restless as Al Jamilat fuses elements of electronica, indie, folk and Arabic melody into a patchwork of moods and memories.
“I miss the Beirut I used to know,” she says, discussing memory. “And at the same time this Beirut I used to know was very painful and I ran away from it somehow. We need to accept that things are changing and there is going to be a lot of struggle. The whole region is difficult and it’s suffocating, especially if you’re a young person and you need opportunities. You need to be inspired, you need to feel positivity and you need to be challenged. On a cultural level also there is an identity crisis and that identity crisis is creating problems and people are inventing fast solutions, and those solutions are intoxicating somehow.”
An identity crisis?
“Yeah, I have a sense that people are searching for values,” she replies. “When I connected (through music) to memory and the past or with something to do with history or roots, it gave me answers and somehow made me feel good about myself. It opened doors for me. Now I think that our societies are linked to the past through the wrong channels. Culturally the Arab world was – especially in the 40s, 50s and 60s – extremely dynamic, and yet I feel there has been a small rupture with this movement. People are searching for themselves through different channels, but those channels can be repressive.”
“I’ll give you example,” she adds. “Every time I go back to Lebanon I connect to the city through the taxi drivers. I get the sense and the vibe of the place through them. The different tensions, the politics, the corruption, because they are in the middle of it. I also started to realise that less and less people listen to quality music and more and more are giving up to this globalised, horrible, industry of ‘tisk tisk tum tum’ music, as I call it. And if you go deeper into what this music stands for you realise that women are portrayed as sexual objects and that any depth or reflection or spirituality is completely absent.”
Of all the songs, only one – the Mahmoud Darwish poem Al Jamilat, which lends its name to the title of the album and for which Hamdan wrote the music and melody – was not written by Hamdan. It is this song, however, that she believes encapsulates the overall spirit of the album – an ode to womanhood and a celebration of beauty in its multiplicity and contradictions.
Her female characters are bold, ambivalent and dominant, she says, utilising humour, sarcasm and devotion as powerful means of seduction. “I see those feminine characters as skilful witnesses, non-conventional and non-perfect figures of change, redemption and awakening,” she wrote in her notes for Crammed Discs. “They do not serve their home, fatherland, or religion: they express themselves in some mode of life that is personal, emancipated and free.”
I have interviewed Hamdan three or four times but we had never met until her gig in Dubai as part of the Vibe Series. Even then it was only fleetingly after an at-times frenetic performance.
She always talks confidently and thoughtfully, and when we catch up it is early evening on the night before her Dubai gig. She drinks water and walks from room to room, having arrived from Doha only a few hours earlier, vaguely recalling the last time we spoke. Back then she had been strolling through the streets of Paris, her voice occasionally breaking amidst the sound of mopeds, screaming children and the chit-chat of passersby. A combination of exhaustion, touring and airplanes had stretched her voice to breaking point. Now, she insists, she is fine, despite three years on the road with Ya Nass.
She has been working on Al Jamilat since last February, putting together demos and writing as she toured, living on trains and planes and sleeping in hotel rooms. Snippets were recorded in Paris and Beirut, but the majority of the 11 demos/sketches were laid down in New York at Sonic Youth’s studio in Hoboken before being finalised in London by British producers Luke Smith and Leo Abraham.
“When you record and you’re still working and composing you need to find some solitude, and it took me some time to find that peace and that quiet and to be able to get my things together. To get my thoughts together, my ideas,” says Hamdan, who lives in Paris with her partner, the Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman. “But also to find the desire and to be inspired by things I wanted to do.
“It was very important for me to somehow challenge myself in a different way and to enter another zone. I had ideas, I had desires, and I had to make things happen. So it was quite interesting as a process and I eventually realised that I would – maybe in my next album – do it in a different way, but I’ve learnt a lot. I feel there is something very nomadic about this record. It’s in movement.”
The seed from which the album grew was the song Assi. Written during Hamdan’s years with Soapkills and her then musical partner Zeid Hamdan, it had, however, never taken a finalised form. Revisiting it, she wanted violins, a bigger sound, something very local.
“I wanted a lot of texture, a lot of colour, I wanted a diversity of moods. That was my aim,” she says. “I would take a rhythm, I would take a groove, I would take a sound, I would take a melody and then shape it with different colours so that it became something very hybrid.”
That hybridity will not be to everybody’s taste. The album’s sound is a kaleidoscope of Middle East and Asian instruments, Gulf and Iraqi grooves, Tuareg-like guitars, the grumbling sound of the buzuq, and rhythmic loops created either via live drums or vintage Arabic samples. It is through these samples that Hamdan’s love of the likes of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Asmahan, Umm Kulthoum, Laila Mourad and Abdel Halim Hafez can be discerned.
The album’s standout track, for me at least, is Baaden, perhaps because it is reminiscent of Soapkills.
No discussion of Hamdan, of course, can realistically take place without reference to Soapkills – a duo who epitomised the carefree hedonism of post-war Beirut, re-imagining classical Arabic song with a quintessential Levantine take on trip-hop and electronica. It is through Soapkills that Hamdan is most widely known, especially in the wider Levant. Her success abroad is less easy to gauge, although her appearance in director Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive, in which she performed as herself in a bar in Tangier, helped raise her international profile.
And although Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley worked with Hamdan on Al Jamilat, as did the multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and New York-based violinist Magali Charron, there is one collaboration that stands out – that of Zeid Hamdan on a single song.
“You know, Zeid is a friend,” says Hamdan. “I just called him and it was very casual. I needed a grumpy buzuq – a buzuq that is not serious – and Zeid is great at that. I always see him when I’m in Beirut when I have time.”
Do you miss working with him?
She hesitates. “You know, at some point we arrived at something that was – I would say – the full bloom of our collaboration. I used to feel sad about the fact that we could not produce more music together. But if things are not happening, you cannot force them. I also felt, at some point, a certain frustration that we did not perform more as Soapkills. Because we didn’t perform a lot on stage. But at the end of the day, things don’t happen by coincidence.
“I guess this is part of why Soapkills remains the band that it is and why that sound remains that sound. It was really a historic period in time. It was at the end of the civil war in Lebanon, and I don’t know if Soapkills fits in to today’s Beirut, in today’s world. And I don’t know if I fit. I’m a totally different person now.”
* A version of this article first appeared in Reorient, February 2017
Photographs of Yasmine Hamdan by Flavien Prioreau