On her new album, Beirut-born Arabic singer Yasmine Hamdan continues to give (beautiful) voice to common feeling.
Helpfully for the visitor attempting to subsequently convey a sense of the interior of Yasmine Hamdan’s Paris apartment, video evidence is freely available: the opening scenes of the clip for “La Ba’den”, the first single to be released from her new album, Al Jamilat, were filmed here by her husband, acclaimed Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. The video is, she explains, Suleiman making a certain amount of fun of her (apparently) habitual clumsiness; the song might be Hamdan making a certain amount of fun of herself.
“It’s about a manipulative female who is trying to be sincere,” she says, “but being, at the end, not very sincere at all. She created a fuss but she’s now blaming him for the reaction. This is a very Arabic feminine character.”
Hamdan has lived in Paris since 2002 and acknowledges, after some thought, that she probably thinks of it as home. But it’s her birthplace of Beirut that serves as the backdrop for the portrait of the singer on the cover of Al Jamilat, and the wider Middle East that informs her music. Like 2013’s Ya Nass, her previous solo album, Al Jamilat finds Hamdan negotiating audacious compromises between her affinity for modern electronic pop and an immemorial musical heritage (the title track is an adaptation of the poem of the same name by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish).
“Arabic is my emotional language,” she says. “It just seemed normal for me to sing in Arabic. And it was so thrilling for me to work with all this raw material that I had access to. Arabic music is very difficult. It is very classical and it has a lot of codes but in a way I rebelled against all that. I took what I wanted, kept what I needed and then started exploring myself in it. I fell into the old Arabic music and started collecting those songs. I started creating my own connections to this culture and then I found my own language. It’s more of a conversation than a statement.”
Hamdan, born in Lebanon in 1976, spent the war years elsewhere: in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Greece. Her means of adjustment to returning to what remained of Beirut in the mid-1990s was, in that time and place, rather unorthodox: she formed a band, the electro duo Soapkills. She recalls that touring between Lebanon, Syria and Jordan presented challenges rarely faced by bands on the western rock circuit: one of the drivers was apprehended for smuggling shampoo; another had to see off someone making enquiries about purchasing her.
“It was so weird,” she says. “My parents thought I was going through a teenage crisis; they were so sad. It was very difficult for me to just be who I wanted to be. But I never negotiated. I just had to do what I had to do. I had to face a lot of resistance and bad vibes from women in the family in particular. I was very bored and very unhappy at being in a place where I felt that I had to follow codes and rules. I was very angry for many reasons and I think that allowed me to free myself sexually, intellectually and culturally. It was my own fight, it was something I had to go through.”
Al Jamilat was recorded in London, Paris, New York and Beirut with the help of collaborators as varied as her former Soapkills partner Zeid Hamdan (no relation) and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. As she did with Ya Nass, Hamdan hopes to tour the new album extensively, even – in fact, especially – in those places where most of the audiences won’t understand the literal meanings of the songs. Nor will they appreciate the subtle differences between the Arabic dialects that she so enjoys playing with (Egyptian, she says, is “fluid, like water in a river”; Kuwaiti and Iraqi “rhythmical and groovy”; classical Arabic “like eating a really heavy main course”).
“But,” she says, “I think the people who come to my concerts are curious and adventurous. What is really amazing for me is the exchange and communication that does happen in places where people don’t speak Arabic. It’s not easy; not for me and not for the audience. So it is an interesting thing. And I have always said that if people don’t understand the language then you are communicating in a different way. If you get the emotion then you get it. I don’t think language is a border or checkpoint.”
On which subject, she says she has every hope of returning to the US. “It’s important to continue; you can’t blame a whole country. But I’m very lucky. I just became French six months ago and my life changed. I became blonde with blue eyes. I’m invisible now when I cross borders. It’s amazing.”
Hamdan remains, however, advisably wary of being cast as an ambassador: though rootlessness has been her life, and informs her art, there are advantages to being uncategorisable. “I don’t feel a responsibility to be a representative,” she says. “I feel a responsibility as an artist because I have a voice but I’ve always felt that my responsibility is more to raise questions and to create confusion than to give answers. Because the answers don’t exist.”
1976 Born in Beirut. However, spends most of childhood outside Lebanon, living in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Greece
Mid-1990s Returns to Lebanon and forms electronica duo Soapkills, who record three albums
2002 Moves to Paris (where, with her Palestinian film-director husband Elia Suleiman, she still lives) and forms another duo, yas, with sometime Madonna collaborator Mirwais Ahmadzai
2009 YAS release their one album, Arabology
2013 Hamdan’s first solo album, Ya Nass, is released. She appears briefly, playing a singer, in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive
2017 New album Al Jalimat released