Lebanese-born singer Yasmine Hamdan has always been with us, if by us you mean Bidoun. A profile of her former band Soapkills appeared in Bidoun #0 (you read that correctly). Soapkills, a collaboration with Zeid Hamdan (no relation), more or less personified the cosmopolitan cool Middle East of the early post-9/11 period. Their songs were a pleasingly mellifluous combination of Arabic, French, and English (“trip hop à l’orientale” was a preferred cliché). Everyone had their albums, Bater and Cheftak; songs like “Coit Me” and “Aranis” were mainstays in trendier Beirut cafes. After Soapkills broke up, Hamdan moved to Paris, where she teamed up with former Madonna producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï to produce Arabology under the moniker Y.A.S. She has appeared in films, too, including a number directed by her partner, Elia Suleiman.
When Hamdan turned up in Nouvelle Vague mastermind Marc Collin’s studio in early 2012, she brought along her collection of classic Arab cassette tapes, some Soapkills mp3s, and a YouTube playlist of eclectic children’s television programming from the Gulf. Out of this harvest, she chose twelve tracks to record. But these twelve would not be performed as covers or tributes or remakes or even “modernly twisted” updates of old standards — the songs on the resulting album, her self-titled solo debut, are her “memories of melodies” as filtered through Collin’s analog synthesizer.
Yasmine Hamdan: So, you do films, right?
Sophia Al-Maria: Yeah, I’m making a feature called Beretta. It’s a thriller about a lingerie salesgirl in Cairo who goes on an all-male killing rampage.
YH: I always wished I could do that, especially in Cairo.
SM: It’s the most traumatic. I went to school there. Actually that’s where I first heard about you. But it was impossible to get that first Soapkills album, Bater. The only people who had managed to get it had picked it up in Beirut.
YH: Yeah. At that time singing in Arabic was not very cool. But I’d wanted to make a rock-and-roll record, have this rock-and-roll experience, because that’s how I lived — and how I thought music should be. Television stations wouldn’t even play our video because what I was saying could be perceived as provocative.
SM: But then you have something like Haifa Wehbe’s “Bus El Wawa” (Kiss the boo-boo), which sets up a total double standard. It’s totally exploitative and it’s all over the TV. You’re not censored because of the sexual content — you’re censored because what you represent, as someone who thinks freely, is dangerous. Whereas somebody like Haifa is a prisoner of her own image, which is constructed by a corporation. Because she’s the corporation’s representative, she can be provocative without worrying.
YH: Haifa is very blunt — the music is not polemical; it is what it is. And, by the way, if I hear “Bus El Wawa” in a nightclub, I will dance to it. But now we have so many songs that are derivative of “Bus El Wawa.” It’s a pity, because so much money is being spent by labels in the region. But when EMI and all these big companies opened in the Middle East, they weren’t interested in alternative Arab bands. I was approached by a few of them. “Don’t you want to sing in English?” One Egyptian guy tried really hard; at the end he was a bit aggressive.
SM: They’re like that.
YH: He really tried to convince me that I had to sing and dance like a kitschy pop singer and, you know, be a big star. He was like, “Do you want a car? What do you want? Do you want fifty thousand dollars? You want the check now?” This became very claustrophobic for me. I needed to be in a more healthy environment. Another reason I moved to Paris was to have access to musicians.
SM: I understand what you mean. Everything is twenty times more difficult in the Middle East, just to do your work.
YH: Some people can adapt. But I was an insider-outsider because my family moved every three years. My dad is an engineer, and he was building bridges and corniches and stuff like that. Beirut was my home, and the city is very inspiring, but at the same time very painful and intense. And I was very sensitive.
SM: We have this fantasy that home means safety. But home can hurt you.
YH: Beirut is a very complex place. You feel you’re always on the edge of losing it. This song “Beirut” embodies my frustration with being far from home, because I have to be if I want happiness and security and opportunities. At the same time, I don’t want to lose Beirut. But I needed to be in a neutral environment. When you belong to a place and a group of people, you are linked to authority. You start to negotiate with yourself, think about what others think you should do. This is especially true of the art scene.
I always did what I wanted, and fought for it, but you get tired of the wars. After a while I just wanted to retreat.
SM: Those wars leave you with battle scars, though, which can be a good thing.
YH: Yeah. And victories, too. I know I’m extremely lucky.
SM: You spent much of your childhood in the Gulf, right? How was that?
YH: Yeah, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Kuwait. I love the music of these places, but to live there is too heavy for me. When I was a kid in Kuwait, my parents were divorced and I was free in the daytime. I used to go out into the streets and walk around — you cannot walk in the streets normally in Kuwait — and young men would follow me, harass me. That was intense and frustrating. But I also had access to education.
SM: There are many different archetypes of femininity that you embody in your music — and yourself — and each one seems to represent a different possibility for being a woman. You reference the voices of Samira Tawfik, Asmahan… all these sort of nostalgically enshrined and revered female singers. How did you find these characters?
YH: It was back in Beirut. We didn’t have the internet then so I had this dealer in Hamra I would go to and ask, “Do you have this song that goes like this? Do you have that song?” And he would say, “Okay, but I have to make two or three phone calls and call you back.” It was very thrilling because I had this sensation that it was really something very unique. This is just how it started. And I used to buy a lot of cassettes. I have them here — over five hundred of them. Now you can find a lot of these things on the internet and everybody’s very blasé about it, but each time I got a cassette, I felt like I had won the lottery.
During the civil war in Lebanon, music created a secure, magical place. These singers — like Asmahan and Abdel Wahab — were very alive for me. I felt like I belonged with them, and it had nothing to do with politics or social backgrounds or dialect or intellect. I have an intellectual approach to things, but when I work it comes from desire. I had a desire for these people. I didn’t decide to do it; I had no choice. I had to go there.
When I sing these covers, I’m trying to be like a passeur (ferryman). By embodying the songs, I act like a boat, taking them from one side of the river to the other. Part of my work is to research and another part is to fall in love. Some songs I feel were written for me, and I can’t forget the original rendition. When I fall in love with a song, I work on it until I feel like I can appropriate it; I have to do it the way I want, not the way it should be. If I wanted to sing Asmahan way that it should be, I would be singing a very different tune.
SM: Did you always sing in Arabic?
YH: I really discovered Arab music when I started to sing in Soapkills. It was something else. Zaid Hamdan was doing his songs in English — and it was fun for me to sing that way — but at a certain point something in my life triggered a desire to get into Arabic songs. And these Arabic songs opened a new sense of identity for me. I was in Beirut, and I was not really belonging there. I was feeling a bit lonely and a bit alienated because I didn’t feel part of the city or the people or the groups there. In a way, someone like Asmahan started the process in me to reconnect with something that comes from my childhood but comes also from a past, from my culture.
In my childhood we were in the proximity of the old Arab world — very rich and sophisticated music, films, cinema, and so on, and at some time I was completely disconnected, because I was traveling left and right. So when I started to listen to Asmahan, it reconnected me. And by connecting to Asmahan and Mohamed Abdel Wahab and all these legends, I started to build a small narrative of myself: where I come from, where my culture is, what I love from it, what’s the humor in it, how love is felt, why do I feel my femininity this way. Even, why do I live. You know?
SM: The opening of your video for “In Kan Fouadi” with Samira Tawfik swinging on a flowery swing like that Fragonard painting, all pink and peaches. It’s amazing. In a way it reminded me, in the spooky ghostly sense, of Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosny (2011).
YH: Rania’s a friend, and I’m in love with Soad Hosny. I think she kind of inspired so many of us, you know? So many girls. Sherihan, too. She was wearing these kitsch things, jumping around and dancing.
SM: Sherihan’s TV show was nuts!
YH: Her clothes! But I didn’t find anything good online, and it was cut in such a fast way I couldn’t do a coherent video with this. And I was afraid about rights. So I said, Okay, let me just do something else. But yeah, Sherihan and Soad Hosny and Laila Mourad — I’m completely in love with them.
SM: I was just listening to song of Laila Mourad’s recently that I wanted to use in a video. Now she’s a ghost that I would love to reinvigorate. She gives me the chills.
YH: Which song?
SM: “Min b3eed.” (“From Afar.”) She sings it in the movie Lady on the Train (1953).
YH: The thing with Mourad is that her voice is so particular, you really feel her fragility. It makes me a bit anxious sometimes; you don’t know if she’s going to hit the note or if she’s going to be a little bit under it, though it’s very beautiful either way.
SM: She reminds me of some of Serge Gainsbourg’s women — you never know if the voice is going to crack…
YH: Exactly. It’s like when you’re watching the circus and there’s this guy walking the tightrope and you’re afraid that he’ll fall. And you know Mourad had a hard time, because she was Jewish.
SM: Right! After the 1952 revolution people accused her of being an Israeli spy.
YH: Yeah, but I’m sure she wasn’t.
SM: People are paranoid.
YH: And there was this tremendous frustration in Egypt at that time because the government was being so righteous about nationalism, Arab rights, Palestinian rights, etc. At the same time, people were frustrated that Egypt had ties with Israel. There was this ambient sense that anybody could be dangerous.
SM: It’s a bit like “painted bird” syndrome: You send the painted bird into the flock and the other birds attack it, not recognizing it as their own.
YH: Yes, people like Mourad suffered from this. People like Soad Hosny suffered in a different way and ultimately ended up killing herself.
SM: It isn’t exactly easy to be in the Arab public’s eye.
YH: Well, it has been difficult for me. I’ve been censored. I’m a very free person in my head, and I acted in a free way, so I was singing in that way — but the fact that I was singing Arabic without knowing how to really sing Arabic… I was singing Arabic outside the classical modes. Soapkills was not even considered Arabic music, so we weren’t aired on Arabic TV or Arabic radio. I was singing these sacred songs a bit like a punk. I was wearing the dresses I wanted to wear, I was singing in improvised venues where we weren’t supposed to play. I lived very aggressively.
SM: In your current work you’re drawing on a range of non-Arabic influences, though. What about the song “Samar”?
YH: When I wrote “Samar” I was listening to a lot of Indian, Chinese, Somali, and Sudanese music; I wanted to have a very Hindu melody. It’s sung from the perspective of a woman who is addressing her lover after they’ve spent the night together. But it’s a very decent, modest, and yet really erotic song. We have this a lot in our culture. We leave certain things unsaid; the rest is fantasy. It’s very important for me to be pudique (modest). Singing is very sexual in a way. My voice sounds different depending on how I’m centered. The first several times I recorded “Samar” I couldn’t produce the sensation I wanted. But then I found the tonality. It’s very weird, because you can change the meaning just by taking a bath beforehand, or having a fight with your mother. I’m a moody singer. And it works because I need to access those emotions in order to get beyond the checkpoints of language. I’m singing in Arabic, which is difficult for some people, so I have to use sensuality to attract them, like a siren. I really try to work on how each word can carry the necessary emotion.
SM: And what about the song “Ya Nass”? Tell me about the original song.
YH: To me, Aisha Al Marta, the original singer, is a blurry souvenir of when Kuwait was a very emancipated place, with rich music and art scenes. I like Al Marta’s voice but also her attitude — she’s so rock and roll. That started to change in the Nineties, I think, after the war with Iraq ended. I lived in the Gulf for more than ten years, and I was a very calm, solitary kid. Sometimes when I was watching the national TV stations the cartoons would be cut and replaced by music. This song comes from that time, though I cannot tell you when or how I first heard it. Years later, when I started to search on the internet for musicians I vaguely remembered from when I was young, I heard “Ya Nass” and I was like, “Oh my God, this is her! I know her! I love her.” The same thing happened with Asmahan. Hearing this music again is like experiencing reincarnation.