Revolutionary artist says she tried to make sense of the Lebanese civil war through her music. We speak with dxbeats’ headline act
Dxbeats: Yasmine Hamdan unloads baggage from her glory days
Yasmine Hamdan carries a heavy load – and it shows. She answers questions with the weariness of an artist who has spent too much of the past two decades explaining her work and her life, or trying to avoid doing so. She carries the weight of her reputation as the foremost alternative Arabic artist of her generation.
She has the baggage of a revolutionary who broke down musical and social norms as a member of Soapkills, the legendary Lebanese indie duo credited as the primary forebears of the blooming Middle East underground scene.
It is a movement that will be celebrated at Saturday’s dxbeats, which Hamdan is headlining. That the festival is taking place at Dubai Opera says much about how far the scene, and Hamdan, have come.
“Of course, part of me is flattered, but it ends here,” says Hamdan, focusing on the pivotal few years, scattered either side of the millennium, that might have forever defined her legacy.
Formed in Beirut in 1997, Soapkills’ dreamy trip-hop moodscapes, marked by Hamdan’s breathy, intimate invocations, would make history with three pivotal albums before the singer quit for Paris.
“With Soapkills, we were lucky. We started at a time of transition where things were not ready, nothing was available,” she says. “Also, it was a very special moment for the Middle East, and the world. Lebanon was getting out of a 15-year civil war [which ended in 1990], so it was a very traumatic environment; very inspiring but also very melancholic. That was a very important source of inspiration for me. “There was something maybe in us – in Soapkills and maybe in my voice also, and how I was expressing myself, connecting to my femininity, my culture, to the past – that some people really related to, especially my post-war generation.”
Like so many of her contemporaries, Hamdan grew up in flight. Born in 1976, a year after the war’s outbreak, her formative years were scattered between the UAE, Greece and Kuwait, fleeing the tumult of the Gulf War to return home to peacetime Beirut as an “outsider”.
This identity crisis she shared with Soapkills’ creative partner, guitarist-producer Zeid Hamdan (no relation), was soothed by a sudden immersion in classic Arabic singers of the 1930s and ’40s, such as Asmahan and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
“It was my way to question what had happened,” Hamdan says. “We didn’t have any other possibilities to question the war, the situation we had around us and also to question some social rules that I felt were imposed on me.
“I somehow through music had the possibility to reinvent bridges and reconnect to this place and culture. The music expressed a form of plural identity that a lot of people related to, because a lot of our generation had left and come back, and maybe felt that it resembled them, too.”
Read more: Artists appearing at Dxbeats
But that was then and this is now. After calling time on Soapkills and relocating to France in the mid-2000s, Hamdan formed the electro-pop duo Yas alongside producer Mirwais, who was looking for a new project after lucking out with work on three Madonna albums.
“Our views on things didn’t always coincide,” Hamdan says of the union that spawned a largely overlooked album, 2009’s Arabology.
In 2013, Hamdan struck out with solo debut Ya Nass, the result of a fruitful collaboration with producer Marc Collin, better known as one half of Nouvelle Vague, which picked up strong reviews and established Hamdan internationally.
A haunting live performance in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), singing the feedback-drenched dirge Hal, ensured Hamdan’s solo name would reach further than either earlier outfit.
The fanfare kept Hamdan on the road for three years. Her UAE debut at the now-defunct Music Room in December 2016 marked one of the final shows promoting Ya Nass before a follow-up finally arrived early last year.
Pointedly, Al Jamilat (The Beautiful Girls) is named after an “ode to women and womanhood” by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, from which the record’s title track takes its words.
While each of her three previous projects were defined by a single male collaborator, there is a sense that Al Jamilat offers a purer distillation of Hamdan’s artistry and intent. “I was kind of more in control this time,” she says.
Crossing tasteful electronica with fragile folk while digging deeper into Hamdan’s exploration of traditional Arabic vocal approaches, the album was recorder in New York, London, Paris and Beirut, and featured guests including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, veteran multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and even an appearance from Soapkills cohort Zeid Hamdan.
“When we started I was very tough and really, nobody would ever believe that I would be able to pursue a career to become an artist, composer, singer, to tour. It was not even a possibility,” Hamdan says.
“Maybe I was blessed that my main drive was purely selfish. I needed to make something, make my life better, wider, have poetry in my life, have something that gives me hope on an everyday basis. That was my main drive all along, really.”
The Wanton Bishops
Among the wave of Middle East indie acts to emerge in recent years, the Wanton Bishops are surely the most unselfconscious rock stars. The band’s sense of macho swagger is as essential, familiar – and US-appropriated – as the primal, bare-bones, blues-rock riffs that drive the music.
There’s been a distinct shift in style of swagger lately, with the Bishops trading the leather-and-denim rock cliches of earlier incarnations for a seedy, suited suave.
Frontman Nader Mansour, dressed in a loud retro blazer and bright pastel shirt it appears he forgot to button up, grunts: “Don’t be fooled, it’s just Zara [rubbish]. “I think having a big beard, plaid shirt and a lot of denim now is quite unbecoming. Hipster, man, I’m done with that. We’re a gentleman rock’n’roll band now.”
And in rock’n’roll, image is everything. “I drive a Jaguar,” Mansour says as he lights a cigarette. “I’m doing OK, thank you.”
He is replying to Mashrou’ Leila frontman Hamed Sinno’s confession, earlier that day at last year’s Step Music festival in Dubai, that he drives a 1998 Mitsubishi.
“You’ve got to know where to make your money,” he says wryly. “Some kind of commercial prostitution.”
It feels important to mention that the band’s appearance at dxbeats on Saturday comes only six months after their visit to the UAE, where they played at the opening of a designer clothes boutique in Mall of the Emirates.
The image upgrade came with the style reinvention that was their second and most recent release, 2016’s Nowhere Everywhere, which added smatterings of synth, electronic beats to the raw White Stripes-Black Keys template of 2012’s breakout Sleep with the Lights On, a raging, rocky revelation in which the Bishops fronted the pack of English-language Beirut bands leading the Middle East indie invasion.
Since then, they have barely been off the road, which goes some way to explaining the slow work rate. A second full-length LP is promised this year.
There has been some collateral along the way. The outfit was mythically formed as a duo after Mansour intervened in a bar brawl and met drummer Eddy Ghossein.
But Ghossein quit touring in early 2015 – “He’s in love” is Mansour’s simple explanation – and for the past three years the Bishops have essentially been a one-man-band, with the frontman carrying the brand all alone with a cast of session players.
Not that many have caught on, with most media still mistakenly describing the band as a duo.
“A lot of the press doesn’t do their due diligence, but now it’s just me,” says Mansour, exhaling a puff of smoke, “and whoever’s willing to work with me and sacrifice with me – a big family that helps me to translate whatever is in my head into actual music and an actual show.”
Dxbeats takes place at Dubai Opera on Saturday (April 28) at 6pm, tickets from Dh375 at dubaiopera.com