Yasmine Hamdan’s Al-Jamilat: An exploratory transitional record

In her 2012 solo debut album Ya Nass (Oh People), Yasmine Hamdan covered songs by musicians such as Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan and Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab. In her new album, Al-Jamilat (The Beautiful Ones), her own lyrical production is prominent – the only reproduction is of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. The name of Hamdan’s own label, Hamdanistan Records, also appears on the album alongside that of veteran Brussels-based label Crammed Discs, all of which suggests that the 41-year-old musician is more confident and more in control. “On this record, I am really the boss,” she tells me. “I took the lead.”

Yet, compared to Ya Nass, in which there was a certain continuity between all the songs’ arrangements and sound, in Al-Jamilat the songs are more fragmented and not focused around one particular sound. And the same can be said of Hamdan’s vocal style.

Al-Jamilat contains both fresh and familiar elements, and while it is only natural that artists change with each new release, the album seems to have a hard time deciding which direction it wants to take. Departing from the traditional Arab music references of Ya Nass (on which she collaborated with producer and keyboard Marc Collin, of Nouvelle Vague), its approach is more experimental, juggling electronic and folksy tunes. Working with producers like Luke Smith (Foals) and Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno), one might expect Al-Jamilat to be a bit more daring, but it instead it can be considered a prequel to her next phase.

The album’s 11 songs took over a year of work in Beirut, Paris and New York, and she collaborates again with Zeid Hamdan on two of the songs. They first worked together in 1997 when they launched their erstwhile band Soapkills, often called “the seminal sound of postwar Beirut.” Mixing traditional Arabic sounds with trip-hop and nonchalant techno, Soapkills paved the way for a new generation of musicians to explore their political, social and cultural contexts.

Zeid Hamdan plays instruments on the two most recent tracks. In La’Baden (Until Later), which sounds much more similar to Ya Nass than many of the other songs on the album, his guitar and synth mixes with Yasmine’s full, hypnotic voice, which takes center stage. It has stretched sounds and a positive, up-beat vibe. In contrast, La Chay (Nothing Real) reflects the slower, mutely psychedelic sound that is developed in the new album. Zeid strums the buzuq meditatively in the background as a foil to the dreamy vocals.

The reflective elements that characterized Ya Nass are largely abandoned in Al-Jamilat, though they are still very much present in both the track Cafe, whose electronic nostalgia is reminiscent of early Soapkills, and the title track, Al-Jamilat, which is based on the Darwish poem of the same name. Al-Jamilat addresses female characters, fictional and non-fictional: “The beautiful ones are the strong ones, their desperation ignites but does not burn,” it reads. “The beautiful ones are the poor ones, like the roses in the battlefield.” Hamdan says she finds the poem positive and celebratory.

The famously exiled Palestinian poet is an attractive lyrical source for contemporary regional musicians (for example the ensemble Alif used two of his poems in their 2015 debut album, Aynama-Ratma). Hamdan’s own nomadism is generally reflected in her music as she explores a variety of sources, experimenting between cultures — using minimalist electronic elements and Arab and Western instruments, she embraces her detachment from a specific musical culture.

There are far fewer Arabic notes on this album than in Hamdan’s previous work, but she makes clear that she does not plan to part ways with this heritage permanently. “It is really a way of celebrating this music and memory,” she says. “It is important to keep the memory close to you. The Middle East is going through an identity crisis and I think through art and culture, there are many answers to be found.”

Balad (Country) and Douss have political dimensions. Douss, the opening track, is about corruption and broken governments (The Spring for Arabs is here, Feeding us slogans, lies, and deceits / All of which you and I did not seek”), but it also contains cheerily whimsical choral interludes and twinkly backing notes, ending on a hopeful note. Because of its folksy sound, Douss reminds me of Souad Massi’s latest album Al-Mutakallimun, which reinterprets classic Arabic poems. It stands in contrast with the other songs on Al-Jamilat, as it is acoustic and without much electronic interference. Balad talks about being affected by war and the struggles of an individual who is “a deserted subject.”

Syrian critic Ammar Mnla Hassan, assistant editor at music magazine Ma3azef, tells me that Hamdan’s new album is moving in a completely different direction to Ya Nass but it has not yet reached its destination – it feels like a transitional album. “The songs are not yet mature, final or stable,” he says. “There is not a strict continuation like in Ya Nass. Douss, for example, has a very singer-songwriter folksy sound to it, while songs like Ta3ala have a very unorthodox rhythmic style pattern and are very experimental. Café, which is very low-fi and semi-nostalgic, is again very different than the rest of the songs. It is not necessarily a bad thing, because there’s a lot of experimenting going on in the album.”

Reviews of Al-Jamilat have emphasized its celebration of womanhood, and Hamdan is indeed of the opinion that “we need more things to celebrate these days.”

“I see these feminine characters as skillful witnesses, non-conventional and non-perfect figures of change, redemption and awakening,” she says. “They do not serve their home, fatherland or religion. They express themselves in some mode of life that is personal, emancipated and free.”

Iza (If) is my favorite song on Al-Jamilat – it is upbeat and dreamy but also, unlike many of the other songs on the album, Hamdan’s voice is deep and confident, and perhaps most clearly expresses these ideas of freedom and liberation. I’m excited to see what comes next.

Tugrul Mende 

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