Yasmine Hamdan: Expression, identity and experimentation

Yasmine Hamdan: Expression, identity and experimentation
5 min read
04 May, 2015
Feature: The former Soap Kills singer is one of the region's best known experimental performers and is now making her name in Hollywood.
Yasmine Hamdan began her musical career with Lebanese alternative group Soap Kills [Getty]
I meet Yasmine Hamdan on a sunny day in Paris, the city in which the Lebanese singer is now based.

"What do you worry about?" I ask. "Nothing," she responds, "The sun is shining, and that's enough for me."

Life with the nomads

Hamdan is one of the most well-known names in alternative Arab music, having built up her reputation as a skilled and imaginative songwriter in the Lebanese band Soap Kills.

Born in Beirut in 1976, her early years were spent amid the upheaval of Lebanon's civil war.

After fleeing with her family to the Gulf, she spent part of her childhood in the UAE.

There she grew up with, in her own words, "the Bedouins". She developed a strong attachment to the desert, which taught her to be "free".

She said that her habit of performing barefoot is to "recall" her childhood days.

Hamdan went on to study psychology at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, which caused her to think again about her identity.

"My identity is a problem which has clung to me right from the beginning. The civil war, a turbulent childhood and constantly being on the move all played a part in confounding my emotional being and sense of identity," Hamdan said.

"When I returned to Beirut, instead of encountering familiarity, I felt increasingly like a stranger."

At university, Yasmine met the Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan.

She learned to play guitar and wrote songs, which helped her to grasp a sense of identity: "Music created another life for me - unlike any other which I would have found."

She attempted to study music at the Academy of Music in Beirut, but found it a stifling and dry academic environment.

Yasmine paired up with Zeid to form the electro-triphop band Soap Kills in 1998. It was a time that pop music was the queen bee of the music scene, and alternative styles in the region were still finding their feet.
Listen to Tango by Soap Kills

After producing three albums, the band split in 2001 for reasons relating to "artistic vision" and Yasmine's own desire to broaden her horizons.

She moved to Paris, where she obtained a master's degree in performing arts from Paris-Sorbonne University.

In 2009, she released the album Arabology, followed by her solo album Ya Nass in 2013.

Defining Hamdan's music is tricky. It envelops a distinct range of sounds, from pop to reggae and electronic, with influences from the Levant, Africa and the Gulf evident.

While such variety makes it difficult to define Hamdan's musical identity, the true recipe for her iconic flavour is her unique performing style.

In general, her performances take the lead role in her music. This sometimes comes at the expense of both the melody and structure of the songs themselves.

"My pieces are spontaneous in nature, mostly with an improvised structure. I don't perceive music as a solid, engineered construction," she said.

Hamdan treats song-writing as a playground, playing with an array of different ideas, and this allows her to experiment without without barriers or checkpoints.

"I don't follow any rules, I make my own," she said. "I'm not nearly as concerned with the melody as I am with the way that it's transmitted."

It is this method of transmission, it seems, which transforms her sometimes substance-lacking lyrics - often deliberately so - into questions which probe the depths of existence.
     What society today perceives as taboo, was perfectly normal and acceptable fifty years ago.
- Yasmine Hamdan

Likewise, it transforms the "kitsch" aspect of her music into a studied and impressive flourish.

Reclaiming rights

Hamdan's lyrics do not shy away from taboo subjects - sex, religion and politics.

"We are experiencing a real cultural crisis at the moment, which demands that we become oppositional fronts," she added. 

"Personally, I have suffered a lot of rejection, but what gives me hope is that some of those who in the past refused to accept my work are now among my audience." 

She describes herself as an Arab woman liberated from the chains of society, and looks to art as a fundamental tool of resistance.

"What society today perceives as taboo, was perfectly normal and acceptable fifty years ago. Female artists in the Arab world are fighters, and their mission is much more of a struggle than that of female artists in any other society," she said.

She believes that the road the region is heading down is "terrifying" and does not know how to express these fears.

"The insanity and extremism which we are witnessing is a creation of the capitalist and neoliberal regime, ready to crush anything which gets in the way of their goals," she said. 

"The suffering of the Palestinian people still continues after more than 66 years, and today this same suffering is being replicated in other Arab societies, whilst the international community blindly looks on."

She describes the world we live in as "wreckage", devoid of any morals on political, economic and social levels. Hamdan said she fears having children in such a climate, where the future for them looks so unknown and insecure.

Hamdan is now concentrating on writing scores for films, which includes The Time that Remains, by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, and Ghassan Salhab's Unknown Land.

Her fans were pleasantly surprised by her recent appearance in Jim Jarmusch's film Only Lovers Left Alive, which earned her a number of nominations and awards for her soundtrack to the film.

She believes that there are a number of possibilities for her to explore the film industry.

Hamdan considers "experimentation and improvisation" fundamental to her style of writing, and is working on her next album.

She is also preparing for a tour of her album Ya Nass, which will see her visit 20 cities including a trip back to her roots in Beirut.