Yasmine Hamdan describes her new album as ‘an invitation, a call to a single person or a crowd’, a reflection of changes that are taking place in the Arab world, Shirine Saad writes
Childhood wanderings influence Yasmine Hamdan's third album
Yasmine Hamdan's new release echoes the singer's wanderings through cultures and styles, with pop, electronic and Arab classics.
"Because of the Lebanese civil war, I had a scattered childhood," says Hamdan, who now lives in Paris with her husband, the filmmaker Elia Suleiman. "I had to build my own connections to each country we moved to. It's interesting to be at once an insider and outsider. It's a way of learning how to find your way freely, without the need of conforming or belonging. But it can sometimes also be alienating - not belonging to one place can be a burden, it can feel lonely. In a way music saved me from this."
Hamdan's nomadic life resonates with that of many among her generation who were displaced by war or conflict and are searching for narratives that reflect their multicultural upbringings - somewhere between stale political propaganda and the clichés of pop culture. She began offering alternatives in 1998 in her early 20s with the band Soapkills, where, along with musician and composer Zeid Hamdan (no relation), she sang folksy Arabic melodies over rock and electronic beats, voicing the fears and hopes of the post-war generation.
Over the years, Hamdan has explored the world, working with producers (Mirwais), dancers (Yalda Younes), musicians (CocoRosie) and filmmakers (Elia Suleiman, Jim Jarmusch), deepening her knowledge of Arabic songs and exploring myriad sounds and styles, inspired by wildly diverse musicians - Umm Kulthum, Portishead or Siouxsie and the Banshees. She has mesmerised crowds with her sultry, lingering voice, playing with different dialects, inventing puns and suggestive tales of love and attraction. With her thick black mane and self-assured good looks, she is the ultimate Arabic temptress, an image she likes to manipulate, confronting clichés of women in the Arab world and the excessively overdone visual culture of contemporary Arab divas.
Restless, constantly seeking new ideas, she has just launched her third solo album, Ya Nass, with Nouvelle Vague leader Marc Collin and is touring in Europe, the Middle East and the US until next year. She also appears in Jim Jarmusch's next movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, where she performs the song Hal in Tangiers.
Ya Nass is a soft, emotional and playful album, going from the bare folk of acoustic guitar to enveloping synths, from intimate songs to hymns of political protest. Hamdan's voice is a deep, gentle whisper, layering with atmospheric synths, moody guitars and accelerated beats.
"Ya Nass is a like an invitation, a call to a single person or a crowd," explains Hamdan. "It could be an echo of the movements that are taking place in the Arab world.
"At first when the revolutions started I felt very stimulated and free, I felt that the youth had at last begun to have a voice. But I also know that these things take time and that the situation in the region is complicated."
The songs are intimate and metaphorical, calls for lost lovers, reminiscences of long nights and tender moments. Some of them are taken from the Arabic repertoire, such as Abdel Wahab's La Mouch or Ommar el Zenni's Bali Tantanat, which deals with fraught political rhetoric, and Beirut, a nostalgic postcard of the lazy capital, its arak drinkers and card players. Enta Fen, Again has been described as an homage to Umm Kulthum; Khayyam pays tribute to the poet's quatrains. "I like to see these classics as material that I can shape freely," says the singer, "experimenting with second voices, different structures and melodies that are more pop or Indian-tinted, mixing new influences and the Arabic modalities. I'm interested in this dialogue between tradition and modernity."
After meeting Jim Jarmusch at a festival, Hamdan was asked to write a song for Only Lovers Left Alive, a humorous story of vampires and love. She wrote Hal, in which a woman complains about a vampirising love affair, and shot a scene in Tangiers, where she sang live in front of a crowd.
Hamdan was born in 1976 as the civil war started to shatter Lebanon. Her father, who came from a leftist Arab Nationalist background, introduced her to the great singers of the region.
The family soon fled to Kuwait, Greece and Abu Dhabi, where they went from hotel to hotel, living precariously. On the radio or through her family and friends, Hamdan discovered the songs of Umm Kulthum, Fairuz and also The Cure, Madonna, Prince and traditional folk songs.
In 1991, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, her family moved back to Lebanon, where Hamdan enrolled in psychology studies and felt alienated by the complicated post-war social codes. She met and fell in love with musician Zeid Hamdan and became mesmerised by the melancholic voice of Syrian singer Asmahan and the love songs of Abdel Wahab, which inspired her to revive the legacy of Arabic singers. She began singing endearing Arabic songs over the trip-hop and rock rhythms Zeid Hamdan was creating. "It was the end of the civil war and things were very strange back then," she remembers. "It was a particular period, everything was new, and possible, there was so much hope and yet the war was still present." Soapkills became iconic for this new generation. It was, by many accounts, the first Middle Eastern band to mix western and Arabic styles in the region. "I wanted us to be considered an Arabic band, but free, new, different," says the singer.
A pioneer in Lebanon's indie music scene, Soapkills inspired many bands in the decades that followed, including the folk phenomenon Mashrou' Leila.
While Hamdan sang falsely naive tales about public buses, corn on the cob and long-lost love, the content of their music was deeply provocative in the post-war context.
"We described Beirut in its insolence," explains Zeid Hamdan, who has since started several influential bands such as the New Government and Zeid and the Wings, and supports the local scene under the Lebanese Underground umbrella.
"In its wild ways of rebuilding, its post-colonial slavery, the general machismo, Soapkills was the reflection of a modern Lebanon. We showed musicians that we were allowed to play."
But Yasmine suffocated in Beirut, where the horizons were limited and where the ailing infrastructure constantly posed problems, forcing artists to do everything on their own. She moved alone to Paris in 2002 with a suitcase full of old Arabic music tapes.
There, she struggled, going back and forth between Paris and Beirut, finishing her studies in psychology, but mingling with other artists allowed her to explore new horizons.
In 2002, Elia Suleiman chose two Soapkills songs for his award-winning movie Divine Intervention. She married him a few years later.
Through Suleiman, she met Mirwais, a producer of Afghan origins who had worked with Madonna and proposed to mix Yasmine's luscious vocals with cold, stomping electro-pop music. They released the album Arabology in 2009 under the name Y.A.S., where Hamdan morphed into a sexy sci-fi heroine singing about eroticism, the spectre of war and corrupt politicians.
"I came out of my comfort zone," she says, "and this experience opened my mind and ears. I wanted the Arab world to listen so I proposed songs in different Arabic dialects, played on puns and references to different events in our collective culture."
That is truly Hamdan's signature: to defy established artistic, cultural and intellectual boundaries, bouncing from pop to rock to electro to folk, reaproppriating the great tradition of Arabic love songs, moving fluidly from one dialect to another, penetrating pop culture with threatening political commentary. "I don't think of music geographically," says Hamdan. "It's not because I am an Arab that I have to record a lute or sing on any kind of local instrumentation - unless I desire it, of course. A lot of Arabic composers such as Mohammed Abdel Wahab mixed sounds and instruments from all over the world. It's important to be able to propose new ways and new sounds, without being stigmatised, censored or put aside. There should be no borders, race, colours or ethnical considerations when it comes to music and creativity."
Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.