Yasmine Hamdan is beloved for her vocal prowess, her playful onstage allure, her beauty and wild dance moves. But her ability to create and perform a wide array of characters for her songs is under appreciated.
The 38-year-old Lebanese singer tends to be presented as a wide-eyed coquette, with an average amount of substance, a decent grasp of Arab music history, and a banging stage presence.
She’s often described as the “queen of Arab electro-pop” in Western media. One reporter even called her a “less effortful Lana Del Rey.” But Hamdan was an early pioneer of Beirut’s previously non-existent indie culture scene, speaks multiple languages, and can sing and write lyrics in several Arabic dialects. Del Rey has vapid lyrics in good ol’ fashioned American English about achieving the “American dream,” stardom, diamonds and making out with James Dean. Yet she has the audacity to sing “ I wish I was dead” in “Dark Paradise.”
Having attending Hamdan’s Cairo performance and sat with her at D-CAF’s office this week, I’ve decided that she’s in a league of her own. And you either get her, or you don’t.
Born a year into Lebanon’s Civil War, Hamdan moved around a lot. In and out of Lebanon, in Abu Dhabi with her civil engineer father, then Greece, Kuwait, and finally Beirut again in 1990. Along the way, she picked up an interest in dialects that has since become her signature.
In person, Hamdan speaks seriously, maintaining stern eye contact, but laughs often and likes to go off on tangents about linguistics, women and war.
First I ask about SoapKills, the band she co-founded with producer and musician Zeid Hamdan in the late 1990s, when Beirut was “a half-destroyed city.”
“Doing music was a way of being somewhere very protected and very inspiring, and in a place where I could have some resources. And some answers,” she says. “In the beginning, music brought excitement, hope and something very sexy to my life.”
Soapkills came mushrooming out of the rubble with a languid, sexy, Arabic trip hop sound and raw vocals shot through with late-1990s angst. The combination — which also included grunge, reggae, hip-hop and torpid b.p.ms — was unlike anything else at the time, and it mirrored Beirut’s post-war melancholy. Hamdan was influenced by Nirvana and PJ Harvey, as can be heard in “Follow,” for example. You can also hear Bristol: “Cheat on Me” resembles Massive Attack or Portishead plus Arabic accent and whimpering violins.
The duo released three albums: “Bater” (2001), “Cheftak” (2002) and “Enta Fen” (2005). Their early lo-fi quality couldn’t upstage Hamdan’s voice — “Wahch” is a good example. It was all pretty stellar compared to the rest of the mainstream Lebanese market at the time — Nancy Ajram, Elissa, Haifa Wehbe.
“For the first album, we recorded in a friend’s studio and we didn’t know how it worked — you hear me going to the toilet and flushing it at some point,” she says. “It was really underground.”
The second album saw the singer hone her Arabic vocal skills, starting to sing exclusively in her native language. Sometimes her voice is dusted in the underground’s lo-fi textures, sometimes it’s unguarded and center-stage, like in “Tango,” sometimes it blends with its surroundings, like in “Adaram.”
It would be wrong to not point out one almost unforgivable moment on that final album with Zeid though. The ungodly “Menni Elak.” It’s just awful, mostly because her voice is trapped beneath the screeching pangs of a horrible auto-tune experiment.
The duo parted ways in 2006. Zeid formed another band and Yasmine moved to Paris and developed Y.A.S with producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, famous for working with Madonna on three albums, including “Music” and “American Life.” (He samples from Madonna’s “Keep the Trance” in Hamdan’s “Get it Right,” as if to stamp both women’s work at once.)
“Going from the most underground scene you’d ever imagine, living the most underground experiences you’d imagine, and then going to Paris and then working with Madonna’s producer was — I dunno, it was like becoming a blonde with blue eyes, from Finland,” she laughs — while keeping deadly serious eye contact.
Mirwais and Hamdan released “Arabology” in 2009. It bears a SoapKills influence, but is loaded with Mirwais’ French-style progressive electronica elaborations and faster b.p.ms, making it significantly more danceable.
“With SoapKills, I was really a hippy,” she says. “With Mirwais, he wanted something very particular. So we did a lot of fighting. But I had to win my wars, and he had to win his wars. It was a question of negotiating.”
Hamdan grew as an artist, stepped out of her comfort zone, and opened up to types of music she would otherwise resist.
“Electro pop is an environment and a music that is kind of cold, it’s different and difficult to sing in Arabic on it,” she says. “I really intellectually had to think, and listen to a lot of music, to find the right balance between the references, the humor, the political layers, the sensual layers, the provocation, some melodies, the rhythm.”
“I mean it’s a Kraftwerk song,” says Hamdan. “I had to find something interesting on it. I had this idea for a reference that was fun and it kind of developed. Do you know ‘You say tomato, I say tomato’ by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong? Well I kind of made ‘A Man’ into that — ‘Ana baouul banadoora, enta betoul bandoora?’ which is a difference in pronunciation between the way Lebanese and Palestinians say tomato.”
She goes on a tangent about the Civil War and Palestinians being massacred at checkpoints, and how she’s always trying to find subtle ways to inject politics and social hints into her music.
“I didn’t want to do stupid electro-pop love songs,” she says.
On the whole, it worked. And “Arabology” was her first album to make an impact in Egypt, with its playful, dancified adaptation of Ahmed Adewaya’s “Sah Dah Emboo,” (“Da”) and the Egyptian Arabic dance floor hit “Aziza.”
The latest album, “Ya Nass” bears almost no resemblance to her previous work. It’s folky, acoustic-based and filled with Arabic nostalgia. Hamdan linked up with Paris-based producer Marc Collin from Nouvelle Vague, and released it on his label Kwaidan in 2013. It’s just been released in the US on Crammed Records.
Co-written by Hamdan and composed by Collin, its melodies and lyrics are inspired by the great mid-20th-century Arab singers — Aisha al-Marta, Nagat al-Saghira, Asmahan, Shadia, Mounira al-Mahdeya. It gives a sense of the range of characters Hamdan has either created from scratch or revived from Arab music’s past.
The opener, “Deny,” masterfully sets the stage with crooning vocals, strings plucked softly, and a tambourine. “Nediya,” which revives an ancient Kuwaiti poem, has a poppy Kuwaiti dialect against atmospheric percussion and synths. “Hal,” written for the new Jim Jarmush film “Only Vampires Left Alive” (in which Hamdan cameos), shows how flawless Hamdan’s voice can be, even with almost nothing backing it but ambient noise.
Hamdan’s rendition of Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s “La Mouch,” first performed nearly a century ago, is also captivating, with Collin’s powerful expansion of its chorus and melody. Several of the songs are similar reconstructions. “In Kan Fouadi,” originally written by Egyptian poet Ahmed Ramy and performed by Laila Mourad, is updated through a seamlessly added chorus.
The album closes with the beautifully melancholic “Ya Nass” — elegant, folky vocals above an ominous backdrop of chimes and delicate synthesizers.
It makes Hamdan’s previous albums sound like eclectic fusions targeted at Western audiences.
She says dialects give her freedom, but she also talks at length about how words acquire different meanings in different cultures.
“Each dialect has its own rhythm and particularity, and it carries many different things,” Hamdan says. “‘Samara’ is an erotic, under-the-table song. For me, the Bedouin language is very erotic language, because first of all it reminds me of [Lebanese singer] Samira Tawfik, who’s just this bomb. So this is already sex. But also it carries so much shyness.”
Onstage, Hamdan emits sex and power. Belly dancing itself is unavoidably sexual, and Hamdan makes up for her fits of twitching hips and coquettish gestures with unabashed punk-rock blackouts, stretches of circular head-banging, flying hair and faceless energy. She also takes command of her audience. For the first time I saw one person almost entirely silence over a thousand Egyptians with a simple request and a crippling smile.
This video, produced by Mada Masr, compiles clips from the 2014 D-CAF music program.
A vocal box allows her to sing with two microphones with different vocal effects and outputs, including delay and chorus. She simultaneously adds ornate costume elements and headdresses to her black jeans and tank outfit, and removes them.
“I like to have my normal voice and then go into something a little more freaky and different,” she says. “Also it creates different frequency — it allows me to step out of the romantic. Because when you’re singing it can be very sweet and nice — and this allows me to be more aggressive, or dirty.”
Last week’s D-CAF show culminated with Egypt’s favorite Yasmine Hamdan song, “Aziza,” incessantly asked for after each preceding song. When it was finally played, tabla player Ayman Madrour joined her and the band: an incredibly versatile drummer, a keyboardist/synth player, and a guitarist who alternated between acoustic-electric guitar and bass.
Personally I found the live song anti-climactic compared to the album version, but the audience went insane. There were some frightening moments when clusters of howling, salivating young men looked as though they might ravish the stage. Some people apparently left the show early, blaming Hamdan and the drooling crowd. Either way, I doubt that Qasr al-Nile theater has seen so much excitement since Oum Kalthoum performed there decades ago.
“It’s a song about humor, it’s about harassment, and it’s about her,” Hamdan wrote me in a follow-up email. “It was inspired by a lot of Egyptian movies: You always have this hairy ugly guy and you see the woman as an object. You have the women’s sense of powerlessness.”
Hamdan says women should step out of their victimhood by looking at themselves differently. She also wants to point out that while “Aziza” hints at the hypocrisy around sex and pleasure, “it’s also a very sexy psychological game.”