Photo by Tania Feghali
During her spotlighted singing in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s tale of bohemians as vampires, Yasmine Hamdan’s smoky eyes outacted Tilda Swinton.
It was the Paris-based Lebanese singer’s introduction to a larger audience. But Hamdan has been an enchanting and unpredictable mainstay on the world music scene for two decades – in Beirut’s trip-hop duo Soapkills, with Madonna producer Mirwais as Y.A.S., and in collaboration with Marc Collin of Nouvelle Vague and Bristol, who produced her self-titled 2012 debut, a timeless-feeling electronically-tinged take on Arab pop from the 1920s to the 1950s, reissued the following year as Ya Nass (Crammed Discs). You’ll be nodding “Ya” yourself when she takes the stage at Lido on Tuesday, May 19.
How do you manage to appreciate your background without being “Orientalised” in a European setting?
Well, I don’t think of myself or my identity as being this “Oriental”. It is, rather, a projection from others onto the surface of our cultures. And I don’t think there is only one Arab culture, or a pure Arabness. We are very multiple, especially our generation, which is very multilayered. And, in fact, there is a huge diaspora outside the Arab countries which is even more mixed. What connects us is the language. This identity mix is something I show in my work. It is something I don’t put effort into – I just do it naturally. Being multiple is how I do things. My family played a part in bringing communism to Lebanon. Do you know [Marxist philosopher] Mehdi Amel?
His name is Hassan Hamdan. He wrote the Encyclopedia of Arab Socialism. He was the uncle of my father. He was assassinated in 1987.
You have a very similar situation to mine – my family is half-Communist/half-Hezbollah.
No, I don’t have Hezbollah, because my mother’s side is Sunnite. So, I am a Sushi, you know. [laughs] My mother is kind of – she doesn’t like Shias, so she is racist. [laughs] There is something we say, “I am a Shia light!”
The monolithic image of Arabs only got worse after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, your home.
Well, after this first shock is over it is necessary to look at the complex reality in which the tragedy falls. Terrorism is not only a danger for the West. We should not forget the hundreds who are being killed daily in the Middle East and North Africa by those same criminal factions, who see themselves as the Godchosen Muslims. Those monsters emerged out of the ruins of our modern societies and neoliberal economic system, which we have to dare to question. I don’t relate to what is seen as “Arab culture”. I relate to what I explore myself, what is around me.
Including classic Arabic music and poetry.
This research was my resistance against a monolithic image of our cultures, of my roots. I have a huge collection of tapes and recordings – I could open a cassette shop [laughs]. I actually love the clean, emotional romanticism of Arab classics. I love it because I can break it. Certain emotions can only be expressed and liberated through this effect. When I started doing this with Soapkills, it was not easy. There were a lot of conservative reactions to the way we interpreted old classics: “You are not singing it like it should be sung!” And I always fought this categorising in haram and halal. When you listen to a recording in Arabic from 1932 or 1920, it makes you travel, it connects you to a past, to an unknown part of yourself. And I was investigating in a natural way, like going to school [laughs].
You pushed the envelope performing the belly dance anthem “Aziza” in a Cairo concert last year during Ramadan.
“Yasmine, we heard you made a scandal in Cairo!” [laughs] I was in the same theatre where Umm Kulthum used to perform every Thursday. It was like a football game! Egyptians are quite incredible people. They have everything: the culture, the music, the scenes. So much of Arab music and art started there. I have a big fascination with old Egyptian music, and I also grew up watching old Egyptian movies, which makes me an insider. I am Lebanese with an Egyptian twist [laughs].
You sing about everything from romance to sexual harassment. Even your voice is a subject: you perform with two different microphones, switching from a soft female voice to a more aggressive, sexy tone.
I don’t think it is different. I think emotion and tenderness are also part of sexuality. This song you are referring to in particular is a very funny song – it is very funny to sing “Aziza”. It is sexual harassment but with a lot of humour. That is, it is not serious but the message is serious. But, you know, the character of Aziza is also ridiculous, because she is also kind of playing the game. It takes two to play in our society. So, for me, we women in Arab society have to somehow stop playing games if we want some change.
Did you get a chance to read the interview with Björk in Pitchfork about the challenges of being a female musician?
I haven’t read the interview but I heard about it. She has a point about women in general, that we’re under huge social pressure. Even if we’re going toward equality in some places, I don’t think that this is happening everywhere. If we look at facts, it is difficult for a woman to exist and survive and sustain in a music world that is very much ruled by men. You can have a lot of attention on you, of course, because you are a woman, but you have to also go through a lot of pressure about the way you look, the seductive aspect. When I started my music, my language was the weapon I had in my hand to rebel.
In the end, it all comes down to language.
For me, language went through my sexuality, through my being a woman. Doing Arabic music, it was also a weapon for me, to kind of be political in my way. It was how I rebelled vis-a-vis all these stigmas that I did not identify with or I perceived as racist. I didn’t see myself as an Arab doing music, but I wanted to sing in Arabic. It was important to me to carry on with this language and take it to places and try things with it, and it is also a very rough material and very raw, so many things can be done. It’s that space that I kind of designed for myself. I think that, for me, these difficulties were painful but were part of the pleasure I got because every time I succeeded at something, I won something for me. It was a great victory.
The personal was political.
And it was not only about me; it was also about the way I wanted the world to look. I refuse to be identified as Arabic, or “this is world music”. But I also found myself rejected in many places because of me being an Arab or singing in Arabic. Everybody wants me to sing in English, I love to sing in English, but for me it was important to sing in Arabic [laughs]. You cannot make difficult choices and expect that it will be easy. I mean, if it was easy it would not be fun. I never wanted things to be easy.
YASMIN HAMDAN Tue, May 19, 21:00 | Lido, Cuvrystr. 7, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Schlesisches Tor
Originally published in issue #138, May 2015.