She was known as the electro-pop queen of Beirut’s underground scene. The former lead singer of acts such as Soapkills and Y.A.S., Yasmine Hamdan has now gone solo. Adam Hedengren spoke to her over Skype as she sat at a café in Paris.
Listening to Y.A.S. is a peculiar experience; it could be described as Franco-Arab indie electro, something that you might find in a tucked away nightclub in Paris’ Quartier Pigalle. The rocky beats of the popular tune ‘Get it right’ garner some Arabic influences and the duo’s 2009 album was entitled Arabology with Yasmine Hamdan mainly singing in her native language. Still, what we end up hearing is euro-centric music that resembles the musical trends of Paris rather than those of Amman or Cairo.
This is not to say that Yasmine has removed herself from her roots. Far from it. Her 2012 singles Samar, Beirut and In Kan Fouadi all evoke thoughts of times past – but with a progressive twist. Her vocals take centre stage; the instruments are there to support her voice rather than the other way around.
“I have a special relationship with Umm Kalthoum and old Arabic music, and actually old music overall,” she said in an interview over Skype. “But I don’t know much about old Beirut, I mean I can picture it. So artists like Umm Kalthoum provide a reference point, connecting me to the past and memories I didn’t have.”
Having moved from Lebanon as a young girl, she knows what it’s like to be uprooted and to search for an identity. On a quest to finish high school and later university, Yasmine returned to the capital Beirut in 1990. She met up with Zeid Hamdan (not related) and the two formed the duo Soapkills, garnering a lot of attention for their underground-like tunes.
When talking to Yasmine, one get’s the sense that from the beginning of her career she has strived to find an own identity – and it seems artistry became a way of doing that.
“My work is around my Arab identity, but I also harbour a lot of different influences. I’m not addressing one public; it’s not a plan. But I do try to challenge myself and work outside Arabic music codes or stated music codes. I just want to be in a free space and do my art.”
Then again, Yasmine is a Parisienne, and the French capital is now her home. Everyday life in Paris is an important source of inspiration.
“Making music today, you have to be really dedicated. When I research my music, I need to do it intimately; I need to be in my apartment, I need to be in my room, I need to be alone,” she says. “I prefer to do my writing in Paris. You know, I change my mind a lot and it’s a long process.”
I ask her when she finds it difficult to make music. “Writing songs is always hard,” she says, paradoxically in a tone of confidence.
At the same time, she is a person who doesn’t like to stock herself in a certain genre or place. When I compared her to the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, partly because they both share a style that can attract to Arabs and westerners alike, she simply noted that geography isn’t important. Inspiration just happens, in the same way as life just happens. It comes from anything; music, travel, people who nourishes you, and isn’t something “she plans”.
“I don’t think my proposition as an artist should be geographically based. Anyone can listen to, enjoy – or not – my music,” she says. At least that’s how she approaches music from other parts of the world, be it Chinese, Indian or folk.
“I listen to a lot of musicians, or singers, or music that I understand, that I don’t understand. It nurtures me, and I don’t really think that language is a border.”
Feelings for her native land of Lebanon, however, are mixed. Yasmine left when the country was on its way to restore the glamour and beauty that had gone lost in the civil war.
“But if your question would be ‘if I could live there now’, then I don’t think so. I couldn’t go and be peaceful in Beirut.”
Still, she left something behind when moving to Paris more than a decade ago.
“It changes often. Beirut changes very fast, so I kind of left my references behind too. But I try to go back once or twice a year… and I love it.”
Adam Hedengren is co-founder and managing editor of Your Middle East. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.