Ammar M. Hassan: What can you tell us about your band? When did you meet and how did you end up performing together?
Yasmine Hamdan: There is a network of musicians here, you see. I was working with someone and when they were no longer available, they introduced me to someone else. It happens. I’ve been touring for a while, and I’ve been working with two of them for about two years, since 2014 or 2015. No, since 2015. They know the music by now and we have come to know each other well. The drummer is new. I made a casting call and a few drummers showed up. I tried to get a sense for who would be a better fit for this project. Then we worked a lot and rehearsed a lot. This helped us get to know each other better, and now I think we’re ready.
AMH: Did you have certain criteria when looking for a drummer? Were you considering what was best for recording the material, or was it more important that you get along, so that person continues to work with you on other projects?
YH: Of course, there are several factors at play. First you need to determine, on a personal level, how well you will get along, because you wouldn’t want to go on tour with someone you cannot stand, someone you don’t want to be around. The second factor is talent, and because the drummer controls the tempo, the band’s rhythm, their input is integral. If you have a drummer who alternates between fast and slow drumming, it can negatively affect the music. And for this show I need a good drummer, one who can also produce electronic drum sounds and pull off funky grooves. I sensed that the drummer I eventually picked, the one I worked with, was extremely efficient — I just felt it. There are drummers that are unfocused, or excessive. He was efficient; I had a feeling that he would not go overboard or play the track down, that he would play it as is. After that, I got in touch with the rest of the band, the other two musicians, and we all decided that this drummer was the best fit for us and the music.
AMH: While you’re composing, and especially while you’re working out the arrangement, are you conscious of the band’s composition? Or do you write first and then address the issue of musicians?
YH: I worked a lot on composing and arranging this album, which makes it different than the one before it. This album had already been very clearly thought out. Now about the musicians, what I did was give them the music and then try to see what I wanted to keep from the recordings we did in the studio, which sounds and which instruments to include, and decide if there are things we could sample. For example, the guitarist plays his tunes and the violin tunes, the keyboardist poses as a bassist and the drummer plays the drums as well as samples that I had given him. So they all need to be able to incorporate this kind of thing. It took us some time and it took me a while to realize the best way to work out the specific arrangement so that we’re able to perform it live.
AMH: You have said that the new album, Al Jamilat, is broadly feminist. What do you mean exactly? How…
YH: Al Jamilat is not just feminist. It’s an album with songs that feature women: women who are in love, rebellious women, political activists, women who are more submissive, women who are in charge. It depends, because there are several characters in the songs. But let’s say that in general I wanted it to be fresh, praiseful of women, something that offers a push. I feel we need something like this [laughs], you know? It’s fresh, amazing, energy. It’s called Al Jamilat after Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, which I fell in love with. The name made sense.
AMH: If we can take a step back, in the same line of thought, to Ya Nass, it was…
YH: Hold on, we can say that the album is about womanhood and that it’s empowering to women, but I am not sure if I can tag it as feminist, because the label is wide-ranging, and I don’t really know its exact meaning.
All my life, I have done this for me. I used to fight my personal battles, even if winning was not guaranteed. I always felt like a minority in the world. Women are a minority the same way gay people are. You know, those who are fighting, activists, civil rights defenders, there’s a lot of us. I’ve always viewed myself as part of a bigger, global group of fighters . But I express myself musically, and my expression has always been free. I’ve always fought any form of censorship. This is not new of my work, but now I am expressing it differently. Maybe now I am more forthright about it. If you listen to Leih Zaa’lan by Soap Kills or Ba’dein Ya Nas, or the album Y.A.S, this was always the issue.
AMH: I’m interested to know more about how listeners create an image of you in their minds, and even members of the press who attend a concert or write about you. Your performative persona, and your persona when dealing with the press, is it natural in a way that is sometimes understood and at other times misconstrued? Or is it something you think about?
YH: You mean when I’m being interviewed?
AMH: When you’re in an interview, when you perform in front of a new audience, etcetera…
YH: You see, I don’t “perform” in front of the audience. I don’t speak about myself. I try to be natural. I try to perform my music with the musicians I’m working with, so we end up living the moment and doing it together, us and the audience. You never put up a concert alone — there’s always the band and the audience, who form a connection with you. But it’s not always easy, because I sing in Arabic and many times I find myself in front of a non-Arabic speaking audience that’s not familiar with my work, but curious and eager to explore. Of course sometimes there are Arabs in the audience, but sometimes there aren’t, because I play in a lot of different places. So it’s complicated, but it’s always exciting because it’s all about the energy. First you have to reach the right state of mind on your own and then be able to pass it along to the rest of the band and the audience. I was surprised at how receptive audiences were. It’s amazing, like an electromagnetic force. Something about it is hypnotic. It’s all in creating bridges and being able to communicate. Something extremely intense is bred. I’m shocked that in some shows, ones I think are among the best concerts I’ve done, the audience did not speak Arabic. Sometimes you’re off to somewhere and you worry about what kind of audience will be there, and suddenly you find the crowd extremely open and generous. This is what I mean by good energy, the audience giving you love. It’s a beautiful thing.
AMH: There’s another issue I wanted to ask you about along these lines, a controversial issue I think you’re in touch with and might have an important outlook on. If you are a foreign journalist, working for a liberal publication and presenting an Arab musician or band to a western audience, there’s a tendency to lend your coverage an sense of exoticism. Consider an Arab musician who performs erotically. There’s often the congratulatory sentiment: You’re Arabs and you were able to do that, well done! This dominates more than looking at the actual music, what new offerings it’s put out, its bold use of certain rhythms, its sense of experimentation. Do you get that?
YH: Yes you’re right, especially in interviews with big agencies. The ones that live off stunts, or just sell ideas. They all put you in a box. They invented terms like the “Arab Spring” and whatnot, they keep on inventing. It’s a form of labeling. I’m not saying that what they’re writing is untrue. I’m someone who has almost always fought against conservative thought, and have been free as a woman and as an artist, but they put all the focus on that at the expense of the music, that’s for sure. Not everyone has a sensitivity towards music or can access it, so when they finally come to discuss something, even if it’s marginal, they frame it under broad headlines. They talk a bit about the music but more about politics, you know?
AMH: Like you said, you’re committed to these causes, but sometimes in the media, instead of alluding to them we tend to reduce everything just to that, and it’s similar to how festivals approach the issue…
YH: Yes, but that’s their problem [laughs], because I do my job. I create music and I play concerts. I offer an artistic contribution. It’s a strong one and it has carved a place for itself. I don’t think crowds attend your concerts because you’re a feminist. They attend because they love your music. They follow you because they love what you offer, because they’re able to relate to it. What you are saying has to do with those who write about the work.
AMH: Ok, but for you personally, if you had full control of how people see you, how would you present yourself? What’s the kind of balance you would like to strike?
YH: Like I said, presenting yourself is not easy. And it isn’t something I enjoy. When I started off with Soap Kills [her previous project, with Zeid Hamdan] I was against this idea. I never liked doing interviews or speaking about myself, because I felt my main role was to make music. But now we live in a world where we must engage all the time, so I try to be as careful as I can. I am very wary of becoming opportunistic, because I can easily say I’m a free woman and whatnot. I can go on about all of these things that you read. But I don’t want to be labeled. I’m not a hero and I am not interested in becoming one, per se. I feel like a lot of people can go down that opportunistic road, which brings more fame, and that’s why I am very cautious. That said, I won’t deny who I am, my reality or my work. Music and art are my priorities, and then comes the social and political backdrop and my activism. But I do what I have to do, which is create music, and the rest is the responsibility of the audience and the media. I cannot do the media’s job.
AMH: Let’s go back to Ya Nass. You raised a point earlier that I’d like to shed light on. At which stage in the composition does the concept of the album, be it Al Jamilat or Ya Nass, start taking shape?
YH: I don’t know. I don’t even know how it happens [laughs] but I go through a number of stages, and not all of them are pleasant. I go through phases in which I am tortured, or upset or slightly depressed. I often find it difficult to write because the way in which I write lyrics is a bit strange, like a puzzle. I tend to go after the feeling and the melodies, and so the words have to create rhythm and harmonies. You can’t use a heavy word, for example. It has to rhyme and be in line with the rest of the lyrics. I want to say something that is meaningful, which is what I find somewhat difficult.
The easiest thing for me is to work on melodies, it comes naturally. I can create melodies I like but then find it difficult to find the right words to go with them and make them interesting. It takes time. I might start with the melodies, and then create the musical environment, the context. All this is very important to me. I keep looking till I find what I want.
I do a lot of research when working on the context and the ideas, listen to a lot of music and spend hours online. Since I travel a lot, I’m always entertained on trains or planes or in hotels. I spend a lot of time on each song, programming, playing around, trying out things, reflecting on them, adding color, all the while knowing that it’s a demo. It’s a starting point, so it sets the mood. Then I start writing the lyrics.
The writing stage is difficult. A lot of the time I have to stay home for two days without seeing anyone, with little food. I torture myself [laughs]. I don’t know why. Most of the time I know the word exists but I can’t find it, because it is very difficult to always be in touch with yourself lyrically. I am much more in sync with my body, my senses and with music. There’s something much more organic when the creative process has to do with my body, but when it comes to writing, it takes longer. Because I also don’t write narratives, but I try. I try to be dreamy, and this kind of thing takes time. When a demo is ready, I take it and listen to it in several places, several contexts, to get a sense of how everything fits, before finally going to the studio to record with the musicians. Then we edit. So ultimately I go through several stages. It’s a process, but also many times things just flow, with no particular sequence.
AMH: One of your processes, which is a bit unique to you, is research, particularly since you research a lot of ethnic music and search for specific beats. Can you tell us more about that?
YH: You know what, more than anything I go after the things I find exciting. There are many things that excite me, so I decide to work on them. When this happens I’m adamant on finding a way. This kind of thing comes with time, and it’s different every time. But some things I know. For example, I know when I want to try something out in one song, and another thing in another song. Or I would be hearing of something that I want to include in one of the songs. This helps a lot because it allows the song to evolve. There isn’t a whole lot of logic to the process, but the starting point is always a yearning to work on something specific. I end up being teased, and I become impatient, unable to sleep and tired until I can figure something out. I become obsessed [laughs], and of course you end up meeting people. For this album, I was fantasizing about a funky groove. I wanted someone to play the guitar nonchalantly, so I got to know the music of Shahzad Ismaily, an American guitarist of Pakistani origin. He automatically understood what I wanted and worked on the groove. I edited it a bit and added it to the song. So when you decide you want to do something, you start thinking how: How can you bring it all together? And sometime life just pulls people your way.
AMH: Shazad is the one who was working with Lou Reed, right?
YH: With who?
AMH: Lou Reed
YH: Yes, yes, yes. I think he works with Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and many others.
AMH: In a recent BBC interview you mentioned that when the album finally makes it to the studio, it starts developing its own soul. That it starting taking form, being demanding, and stops sounding like what you initially envisioned in your head. Things happen in the edit…
YH: No, I always oversee what goes on with a tight grip, but surely you have to remain open, unconstrained and receptive to new potentials and ideas. So for example, if one of the musicians comes up with a groove I feel is more catchy that the one I’d come up with, I have no problem letting go of my original thought and keeping theirs, given that it’s catchier. I have one way of approaching things, two ways actually. I have to be open and receptive, because so many ideas will pop up and certainly yield exciting things. At the same time, I have to be careful that the initial idea doesn’t escape me or stray from the original demo and from how I envisioned the album. It’s a prickly issue. But for this album, I am the producer. I now have record label called Hamdanstan Records. I recorded at the studio and then spent a lot of time editing, maybe three months. I was traveling and spending most of my time on the computer. The songs changed, not just because a musician came and played a song. I did a million edits. I had to pick and choose from everything we’ve recorded. That’s how it went.
AMH: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about. Because you go into the studio having done all this research, and in your head you’re counting on this diversity in sound…
YH: But by then I have a demo. I don’t go in with something abstract. I go in with something concrete. And sometimes by then I have worked on some programming, or written the bass line. You can do that on music programs. Or I am ready with the violin line. So I don’t go into the studio with just ideas, I have something tangible: the demo.
AMH: Exactly. Because of this huge variety of sounds, the musicians you work with or those behind the mixer might not be in control of what they are doing, so they try to bring it closer to their sound…
YH: Yes, and this is something that really scared me. I try to be very conscious of it, because I work with people I don’t know, and they don’t know me either, and I don’t know where they’re coming from. I’m not saying where I come from is better. It’s just different, so I have to always be careful that certain things aren’t left off my track.
AMH: I actually wanted to get to that point — how much power you have, from the moment you enter the studio until things are complete. Now it makes sense, since you have taken control of the production arm…
YH: Yes, but you always need to leave a space for the people you work with. You’re not just working with anybody, you’re working with people who you know are great. That’s why you selected them. You have to ensure there’s room to accommodate different people and different talents. You need to be able to adjust your vision, and you always have to have this space to develop. In any case, it’s a matter of finding a balance. I’d rather have left than become completely flexible. When I met with the producers at the studio, I had 80 percent of the material. The songs were there, so I was extremely cautious. But even so, a lot has changed for the better — the core was there and the songs ready, so they played it, tweaked, polished and ended up changing a few things. It was great to be honest, the ideal scenario. None of us stepped on the others’ toes. They brought forth so many exciting suggestions. Sometimes it took a while to digest them, because I had a different idea in my head, but at the end of the day, you don’t pay people to come all that way so you can tell them no. You need to absorb their input and find a place for it, broaden your own vision. It’s about finding a balance. I also want to say I was lucky, because so many people end up working without establishing a connection. But for me, there was a link, intellectually, on a human level, and on a friendly one too.
AMH: You’ve said before that you are knowledgeable when it comes to different Arabic dialects. Knowing that each dialect has its own charm, and letting them punctuate the songs’ arrangements. When did you start being aware of these differences?
YH: No, no [laughs]. When I started my career with Soap Kills, I was going through a transformation. The songs and characters I used to sing varied when I sang in Arabic and in French. The drama that emerges when you sing in an Egyptian dialect, for example, doesn’t exist in Lebanese songs. When I sing in a Lebanese dialect, I opt for more slang and I’m more comfortable. I used to love writing in Egyptian because I used to listen to a lot of Egyptian music, like [Mohamed] Abdel Wahab. I love writing in Lebanese too because I also listen to Fayrouz. The musicians I grew up listening to opened my mind to these possibilities, which gave me the idea of mixing dialects.
AMH: I wanted to ask you about musicians that have influenced you, and those you’ve been listening to a lot lately. Can you name one or two who use different dialects?
YH: It’s not necessarily about who I listen to. I think it’s about the fact that I like artists from all sorts of places, so it’s natural for me to sing in many dialects. I’ve also lived in the Gulf, and I love their dialect. And I love the Iraqi dialect. I am sensitive to new languages. I am fluent in five languages. Do you know I learnt Greek? I can read and write it. My husband says I’m a parrot, because, for example, if you are a Canadian with a heavy accent and I spend 10 minutes with you, I start speaking with a Canadian accent. My tongue swirls that way [laughs]. It’s a habit. I learnt at a very young age to master more than one language, and since we traveled a lot, I tried to grasp the language wherever we went.
AMH: So your singing technique was developed organically, more than through a series of decisions.
YH: Yes. And the same is true with melodies. So if I find Lebanese or Egyptian dialects inharmonious, I go for a harsher dialect. Or if I want something groovier, I go with Iraqi or any Gulf dialect. They’re rough and have a pop resonance to them. For the sake of comparison, for me, the Kuwaiti dialect resembles English a little bit. Egyptian sounds dramatic, sometimes comic, whereas Lebanese is more pleasant, and can be used with politically charged lyrics too, depending on the song. Classical Arabic is heavier. Very presumptuous, very serious. So it really depends on the song and the melody. If I want the song to come off as erotic without being overly sassy, with only subtle hints, I could use the Bedouin dialect, because something about it is very mysterious. It enables you to visualize a woman, her glance, how she smiles, how she laughs. It really depends on the context.
[Hamdan walks out of the interview for three minutes]
Ok, let’s continue.
AMH: Let’s. In light of the different dialects, do you see a difference in how an Arab listener and a western listener receives the music, since the Arab listener has a better grasp of this variance?
YH: I don’t think there’s better and worse. I think people absorb music differently. If I am going to speak about myself, I don’t always listen to music in languages I understand, and I don’t try to understand music through the lyrics, unless it’s poetry, or Leonard Cohen, or old Egyptian songs. But to me, lyrics are what allow the melody and feeling to permeate through you. It doesn’t have to be a checkpoint. You can get a sense of the music in a different way. I personally listen to music from all over the world, three quarters of the time I don’t understand what they’re saying. I listen to a lot of Indian/Pakistani music. I love that kind of stuff, but the lyrics don’t matter much, unless they’re really good or really awful. I can’t [laughs], you know? I mean if the lyrics are awful I can’t keep listening. Of course lyrics are important, and I work a lot on composing a message to pass on to those who understand the language. But because you have a voice, you can also deliver this message in abstract form, through the melody or artistic creation. It’s a different experience on stage, because when it’s an Arab crowd who know the words, they dance. Their references are the same as mine. When they’re a foreign crowd, they often listen more to be able to explore the music or the band or the songs.
AMH: I wanted to ask you something about Ya Nass. That album contains several Arabic songs that you reproduced. Whether you recreated them as they were or with alterations, your choices were unexpected. Is there a specific link between the artists you chose? Is it in line with the album’s concept, that you did not write them?
YH: But I didn’t do it on purpose. I like those songs, and I felt like they were the songs I can sing. It felt like I could have written them myself. I fell in love with them, that’s why I decided to sing them. For example, Laila Mourad’s In Kan Fouadi Shayf al-Hawwan [If My Heart Saw Disgrace], which is not at all popular, is a song I practiced for a long time. I loved it. And Aisha al-Marta is a Kuwaiti artist whom I love a lot too, so that’s why I chose a song by her. I grew up in the Gulf, you know, so I used to listen to these songs when I was younger, and when I came back and started to work on Ya Nass, I decided to do research. When I discovered these songs, I felt like coming back to them, to work on this material which I thought was very important. I didn’t have a solid plan, but I also wanted them to be special. [Laughs] I wasn’t going to sing Talaa Min Beit Abouha [Leaving Her Father’s House] nor was I going to go for extremely famous songs, because so many people have already performed them. I wanted them to be intimate and special. Music by [Lebanon’s] Omar al-Zaa’ny [1898-1961] music too. And since I have a passion for collecting old music, I hunt for those songs. I have cassettes, CDs, MP3s and now I have more vinyl. I have a collection of songs that are not popular by musicians who aren’t so popular, and that kind of thing is very dear to me.
AMH: Have you been collecting vinyl and old songs since you first started listening to them, or did that start when you started to sing and research music?
YH: It started with Soap Kills, and singing in Arabic. I was in love with Asmahan and really wanted to sing in Arabic, but I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t want to learn the traditional way of singing. I used to go to a liberal school, so I learnt that emotions and honesty are the most important elements. I used to love Nina Simone and PJ Harvey. So I started searching. My first collection was of Asmahan. I also listened to Om Kalthoum. I liked her a lot, but Asmahan was my favorite. Then came Abdel Wahab. I spent many years listening to him. Then Fayrouz, not all her repertoire but a lot. Sayed Darwish, Sheikh Imam, Laila Mourad, Zakiya Hamdan, Nagat al-Sagheer, who else? I started looking for records by all of these artists. Sabah Fakhry and Sabah too. But the one I used to listen to the most was Abdel Wahab, followed by Asmahan.
AMH: I want to ask you about covers, since you did several on Ya Nass. When Bob Dylan included covers in his last few albums, he said he wasn’t trying to cover those songs but uncover them.
YH: Yes! Yes!
AMH: Exactly, so I wanted to ask you about your relationship with the songs you cover: Do you think of them as raw material that you’re free to reshape and reinterpret, or does each song have its own soul that you try to preserve?
YH: No, that’s not how I see it. You end up preserving the song by enabling it to be recreated or reimagined, or enabling it to exist with a new meaning. You certainly don’t try to replace the original song, nor to imitate it. It’s not karaoke. I am not talking about the pop stars who sing on talent shows — you’re not creating music for a television show. The exciting thing about working on a cover is that you’re able to express the song your own way, without any self-censorship, because essentially it’s about expressing yourself, even if you haven’t written it yourself. But I think covers that are different from the original are the ones that succeed. Even if you only add new expression at specific points in the song, you need to establish a distance from the original, you know, because you will never be able to replace it.
This is an edited translation of an interview published in Arabic on Ma3azef. Translated by Heba El Sherif.