Yasmine Hamdan’s first film appearance saw her and Soap Kills cohort Zeid Hamdan perform “Ya Jarha Galbi,” in Ghassan Salhab’s 2002 feature “Terra Incognita.” Yet she recalls the film version of the tune less vividly than the one later included on a compilation CD.
“Years later I listened to the CD. After my very melancholic romantic singing, there’s this instrumental moment. Then you hear me scream, ‘Two vodka, please!’” she laughs. “How did it end up on the recording? Where was I? Where was Zeid?”
It was as one-half of Beirut’s trailblazing trip-hop duo that Hamdan first emerged on the Arab indie music scene. After Soap Kills parted ways in 2005, she spent a spell exploring old and new music, then returned in 2009 as the face of Y.A.S. – her Arabic-language electro-pop duo with Paris-based producer Mirwais Ahmadzai (aka Mirwais).
Last spring, Hamdan released her self-titled solo record, produced by Marc Collin. “Yasmine Hamdan” mingles original numbers with retooled classics from the Arabic songbook – acoustic performances, mostly, embroidered with light electronics.
The singer-songwriter was in Beirut not long ago, after which she ruminated about collaboration, musical roots and finding her voice.
“When I started to sing in Arabic,” she recalls, “I had just rediscovered Arabic music and reconnected with these old, old songs – Because of the [Civil] War, I had to leave [Lebanon] many times. I was uprooted. In a way I started to sing in Arabic because I felt this gave meaning to what I wanted to do.
“Each collaboration is different ...,” Hamdan says. “With Zeid it was very intuitive, very spontaneous ... I wasn’t really searching as much as now. It was the beginning of something. There was a sort of chemistry that sometimes happens among collaborators ... It was a moment, a time we were living in the city.
“With Mirwais it was very different. I wanted to do a more electronic project than Soap Kills, but I didn’t know exactly what sound I wanted. The collaboration was more solitary. I would write the songs and send things to Mirwais. He would work at his house, then send me back some stuff.
“It was a project more than a collaboration. It worked to find contact points between us but he remained very much in his own world and I needed to do stuff outside my comfort zone. I didn’t really have control over it.
“This new album is my baby. I conceived it on my own – working on each song, picking some and trying them out with musicians.
“The studio process with Marc was thrilling. We both work fast and he’s very efficient and cool. He’s a very subtle producer, and he trusted me intuitively.
“I knew exactly what I wanted – something a bit more acoustic. Any electronics would just be textures, something gracious.”
“Arabology,” the Y.A.S. CD, bore little resemblance to her work with Soap Kills. Again, the tunes on “Yasmine Hamdan” can be confused with neither Y.A.S. nor Soap Kills.
“I don’t like to be sedentary,” she says. “It depends on the people that you meet and the desires you have. I sometimes need to do stuff that’s more energetic, more muscular. Other times I want to go into something more intimate, shy.
“It’s a process ... When you work on music you put yourself in contact with something inside you. You get to know yourself better, your limitations, your possibilities, too.
“After Y.A.S. ... I missed being with musicians. I missed being in an intimate environment. I’m really proud of the album I did with Mirwais. I love it, but I needed something more resembling who I was.
“Sometimes [collaboration] works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does it’s magical. You share this moment, this space and it’s a very abstract space, a space where you are creating and finding inspiration, sometimes being very frustrated ... I like to play with the music and to play in the music.”
Hamdan’s work is utterly contemporary, but a glance through the playlist of “Yasmine Hamdan” will reveal a number of older tunes – anonymous works and lyrics and melodies penned by figures like Ahmad Ramy and Mohammad Abdelwahab. She says the 19th- and early 20th-century repertoire has been central to her work.
“I’m interested in many Arabic sounds and musics and rhythms,” she says, “Kuwaiti songs, Lebanese songs, Egyptian songs. Usually I need to feel that a song was written for me. It becomes material somehow, something I can sculpt.
“I try to transform some moments, emphasize others. Sometimes in a song I’ll create some additional harmonies. I take all the freedom I need to create and adapt, all out of love and respect for the song.
“On this album the Abdelwahab song I call ‘La Mouch Ana’ is slightly reshaped. Other tunes are ... recreated – with melodies changed, parts removed completely.
“In ‘Ya Nass’ I created a chorus. ‘Irss,’ too, didn’t have a chorus ... ‘Kan Fouadi,’ a very old song sung by Layla Mourad, has no chorus. When we were working in the studio with Marc, I sang him the song. ‘If you want to create a chorus,’ he said, ‘where would it be and what would it be?’”
She sings the dabkeh-beat vocalisation that serves as the chorus of “Kan Fouadi.”
“In the original song,” she says, “this is usually an improv moment. I have a melancholic tenderness for these old tunes. They helped me rearticulate my own small narrative of where I come from ... We had lots of war and rupture. I think that through this culture, through cinema, through dreams, I started to rebuild my own stories.
“There’s something challenging and exciting here. Arabic music has had to deal with so many rules – because so many things are haram. There are lots of codes.
“I do trust that at some point more alternative, more underground, more difference will be allowed on the Arab scene. When we started with Soap Kills, it was thrilling and exciting but we also had to deal with a lot of conservatism. It’s interesting. I’m not uncomfortable with the polemic, when something takes time to work, to percolate.”
The version of “Yasmine Hamdan” that’s now in the shops may become a collector’s edition one day. Hamdan says she’s on the verge of signing with a “mythic” U.S. indie label interested in an international release, in April some time. She’s in the studio now working on one or two new tunes for the re-release.
The songwriter is also working on the score for a staging of Saadallah Wannous’ stage play “Rituel d’une metamorphose” (A Ritual of Signs and Transformations).
“It’s gonna start in the spring in Marseille, as part of the city’s European Cultural Capital celebrations,” she smiles from Paris. “Then it’s coming here, where it will staged at the Comedy Francais.”
Hamdan will also return to the big screen. Though coy about the details, she can confirm that she has participated in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the latest film project of a lauded American auteur.
“I like working with different artists,” Hamdan says.
“Sometimes it’s fun to go where your heart takes you.”
“Yasmine Hamdan,” 2012, is released by Kwaidan Records. The CD is available at discerning music shops and bits can be found on YouTube.
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