The indie queen of underground & alternative music. On singer Yasmine Hamdan.
By Mike V. Derderian
Photographed and styled by Tania Feghali
Make-up by Maniacha Fialkina B4 Agency
Clothes; all vintage from Pretty Box Paris’s
If Arabian underground music was an ancient temple Yasmine Hamdan would be La Grande Priestess. I’ve been hearing people talk about Yasmine Hamdan since 2003, when I started my career as a radio presenter and disc jockey. Back then she shined under the limelight with Zeid Hamdan; together the duo performed as Soap Kills.
It is 2014 and Yasmine Hamdan is now not only a regional name but also an international one. Just mentioning that Yasmine Hamdan will be performing in any part of this region will make people go into a trance-like frenzy. This is what happened when people heard that she will be performing at The TBA Collective’s FESTBAL, which took place in EXIT club — Amman, Jordan a couple of months ago.
I was there, amidst her most loyal fans, but sadly and for circumstances beyond my control I did not stay to meet this priestess as she entranced people with her voice and presence. “There is something magical about her. She has a body language, a musicality, of her own,” an artist/musician friend, I bumped into, declared.
When My Kali’s founder asked me if I wanted to interview her I said yes. The questions were written and sent to her representatives. I was supposed to meet her in person a day before the concert; however, I was told that her vocal chords were tired from touring.
As I reached FESTBAL I hoped she would green light our interview. Two hours before she ascended the stage I was told she wanted to tell me face-to-face the interview that I hoped for won’t take place.
Escorted to her changing room I met a slender quiet lady clad in black, who politely whispered an apology. I expressed my admiration as I typed her e-mail into my mobile before I left. All this happened in less than two minutes.
As a journalist I always prefer to conduct live interviews, whether it was for online or print media, however, one does not refuse a chance to hear the words of the High Priestess of Underground Arabian Music even if it was in written form.
In this month’s issue of My Kali you will be able to read the thoughts of Yasmine Hamdan through a couple of questions that we felt like asking; the most important of which revolve around gender equality in the Middle East, and how her presence as a female performer on stage would be regarded a sin during the Holy Month of Ramadan in Jordan.
“Here we go!” Yasmine Hamdan typed as she sent back the answers to me a month later.
In your own words who is Yasmine Hamdan?
I don’t know how to do that! If you Google my name it’ll be easier.
Was singing in Arabic a choice from the beginning?
Appearing on the Jools Holland Show must have been quite the experience! Tried to watch the video but I couldn’t. Needed a pass of some sort! What can you tell me about that evening?
Yes, it was fantastic to be on the Jools Holland show. I performed two songs from my latest album Ya nass: Beirut and Samar.
Praises from Jim Jarmusch, who is hailed the king of the Indie Film. You being the indie queen of underground and alternative music did you connect? I mean you obviously did or you wouldn’t have worked together.
Collaborating with other artists is an emotional thing. Obviously you don’t do it unless this person inspires you. I have been a big fan of Jim Jarmusch’s movies, way before meeting him. He’s an amazing artist. He’s been a great inspiration and a great support.
What was it like to work with him? I mean you got almost 3 minutes of screen time.
I met Jim Jarmusch at a moment when I was a bit lost, just before I started recording my album Ya nass. His reaction to my work gave me a big boost. I also met lots of very interesting musicians around him. This experience has been very inspiring. It has also brought a great exposure, and a different public discovered my work through his movie.
I met him at the Marrakesh Film Festival. He was in the middle of writing his script for Only Lovers Left Alive. He saw me perform in a private event, came to me afterwards and told me he had an idea for me, a scene in his next movie that he would love to write.
He contacted me when he was ready to shoot and sent me the script in which I am performing a song of mine. So I started working on the song, and wrote “Hal.”
Then we shot the scene in Tanger. I performed Live the song, in front of a real audience. It was a fantastic experience. The only indication Jim gave me was that he wanted me to be myself! (The live version of the song “Hal” is part of the movie soundtrack it was released this spring.)
I also released a recorded version of the song in my latest album “Ya Nass.”
“In general, in our societies, we, women, have been objectified, and many times posed as a problem; and something that needs to be controlled. We don’t have equal rights, when it comes to freedom, religion, sexuality …”
Music is entirely synonymous with freedom of speech, creativity and imagination. What do you feel about the rise of oppressive sects in the region? I mean such sects are not exactly women rights friendly?
The rise of oppressive sects in the region is dreadful, not only for women, but for our soul. It will have serious repercussions on our future, and our children’s future.
Without freedom and without humor, our cultures can’t have a healthy evolution.
If we come to talk about women’s rights, I think that women are more or less discriminated everywhere. Discrimination can express itself in different forms, from oppression, to violence, stigmatization, censorship … etc.
And it is related to social/political/economic changes. If you watch Egyptian movies from the 50’s or the 60’s you’ll notice how erotic some scenes were, and how “permissive” our societies were towards women back then. I saw lately a documentary by the great Syrian filmmaker, Omar Amiralay. I think it was shot early 80’s, in Cairo. He was interviewing some Egyptian women about their sexuality. You’d be shocked now of how naturally and freely these women talk about pleasure and sexual issues. Back then, it was not an issue.
Speaking of women’s rights in Jordan what do you think of a new, sort of unspoken law, or out there law, about prohibiting women from performing during the month of Ramadan? If such a shameful law exist what do you think Jordanians should do about it? We are going to do an entire piece about that — if you ask me we should tell Jordanian officials to go shove it.
I find it outrageous. I don’t understand what gives any man the right to oppose a woman from performing in Ramadan or from doing anything in general. It only reveals the fear of these men from women. Unfortunately, we live in societies in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
Have we come a long way since 97? Do you sense the Middle East is changing or is it still just icing on an infested and putrid cake?
It is way too complicated to summarize and even to have a clear analysis. In Lebanon, there are many associations fighting for social rights and claim for more justice. Skilled lawyers and powerful individuals back these activities, so on one level I think there is more awareness for civil rights. But unfortunately we still have a long way to go.
In general, in our societies, we, women, have been objectified, and many times posed as a problem; and something that needs to be controlled. We don’t have equal rights, when it comes to freedom, religion, sexuality … etc. Some laws still protect honor crimes, discrimination when it comes to rights, and violence against women.
Where do you stand on the rights of Arab LGBT+?
Any violation/oppression to homosexuals and lesbians rights is a crime.
With Soap Kills you started reflecting upon the Arab daily life and happenings. You are also renowned for creating socially and politically conscious songs. Which comes first? The music or the message? The singing or the saying?
My work is very much related to my sense of identity. I was a confused teenager. I grabbed my voice.
I don’t believe that there is a separation between art and political consciousness. You have a voice that reaches out to people, and you are responsible for your choices.
My journey music with Soap Kills was wild. There was really a void back then. It was the beginning of things. There was nothing that allowed us to evolve normally as a band, no venue places, no sound engineers, and no musicians. The concept of “underground” was not even something that existed.
Singing in Arabic was not at all a trend. I guess this gave us some freedom and the sense that we had to improvise everything. When I started singing, I did not know where this would lead me but I had an urgency to do it.
With all the insecurities I had, and the difficult environment I was evolving in, I was somehow confident. Music made me grow stronger, and freer. When you are a Female Arabic Artist driven by the desire to be independent and free, and when you are confrontational, you face many “taboos” and social pressure. So you have to be like a warrior. I fought many wars to be able to do the music I want to do, and to become the person I want to be.
A female friend who attended your concert at The TBA Collective — FESTBAL told me that you owned the stage. She described you by saying, “You have a body language, a musicality, of your own. In the end this is the difference between a recording artist and a performer. You are both. How did your stage presence come to be?
You always do the concert with the audience, not in front of the audience. A performance is a very physical moment. Your body interacts with the music, the public and with your emotions. Singing is a very sensual activity! You engage in it with all your senses and your heart.
Tell me about the first time you went on stage. Do you ever gain enough confidence to just do it without even thinking about it? Do you lock out and lock in on the surrounding of performance night? Does your heart race like it is the very same time?
The first time I went on stage was completely improvised. I was terrorized but a very strong and uncontrollable desire made me do it. I get a little bit anxious before singing but I think it’s completely normal and healthy. This tension creates intensity.
“I am quite lucky I must say. I always have the feeling that I have lived many lives, and I’m on my way to become something else, sometime soon.”
In a headline in Metro you said, “Not belonging is liberating feeling.” Do you believe that all men and women at this age should belong to themselves? The universal being concept, or where you referring to a country, a religion or a political belief?
I think of music’s exterior borders. I don’t sing for an audience or another. I don’t identify myself to a group nor to one culture. I like to surf.
Arabology (2009) and Ya Nass (2013) are your latest albums as a solo recording artist. You’ve been singing since 1997, which means a lot of songs. 15 years in the scene. How do you feel about it?
I don’t know, time passed by so fast! I have been so driven by what I do. I evolved through the years and the experiences. I was lucky to know at a very young age that this is what I wanted to become. In time I knew myself better, and I now trust myself better. I have met great artists, and collaborated on great projects.
I am quite lucky I must say. I always have the feeling that I have lived many lives, and I’m on my way to become something else, sometime soon.
I don’t know what that means but it always gives me some hope. I am now starting to be tickled by the desire of going back to the studio and working on my next album. That’s my feeling today!
If I may ask this but who would we find on Yasmin’s iPod or Walkman? Who are some of the musicians, singers and bands that you listen to get your musical inspiration?
It depends on the periods! I listen to a lot of music and research a lot. On my Ipod today you can find Asmahan, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Zakiya Hamdan, Sheikh Imam, Sayyid Darwish, Oum Koulthoum, Iraqi Choubi Choubi, Leonard Cohen, Kraftwerk, Abida Parveen, Cate Power, Radiohead, Chet Baker, PJ Harvey, Neil Young, Cocteau Twins, James Blake, Kanye West, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Pixies, Siouxies and the Banshees, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Arvo Part, and Bach … etc. I also love Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Indian and Asian Music.
How does it feel to be the vanguard of Arab fusion music regionally and internationally?
You learn a lot about yourself and your relationship with the world through music. My artistic drive is to “crossover” borders, with this convergence of punk, pop, rock, trip-hop, electronica and Arabic sounds. I pick my own rules.
And finally the cliché question: What do you think of the current Arabian music scene?
“For the times they are a-changin’!” There are great young bands with a new committed public and a young audience with a cool spirit. Today there is a culture of going to concerts and a structure that allows these artists to evolve. All of this is very much in relation to social changes.
As an advice what would you tell anyone who wants to become a musician or a singer the Middle East?
Work hard, be curious, and stay true to yourself and down to earth. I would also quote a line from a Leonard Cohen song, “a singer must die for the lie in his voice.” This quote is guidance!
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