(photo: Tanya Feghali)
Yasmine Hamdan — appearing at the Great American Music Hall on November 12 — is a Lebanese icon. Known internationally for her enchanting, emotionally and politically-charged pop music, Hamdan blends her Arabic roots with her former musical life as half of the indie electro-pop duo Soap Kills. Rising out of the rubble of a nation ravaged by civil war, Soap Kills was one of the first bands of its kind in the Middle East.
Hamdan continues innovating. Between performing her song “Hal” in Jim Jarmusch’s gorgeous Only Lovers Left Alive, collaborating with Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, and writing an original soundtrack for Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous’s play Rituel pour une métamorphose, Hamdan is consistently creating new sounds with a piercing lyrical poetry, all while singing in Arabic and not conforming to the global music standard of English.
One has to wonder: At what point will we start calling Hamdan simply an icon?
We caught up with Hamdan by email in advance of this weekend’s show to find out more about the inspiration for her newest release “Balal” (“Country”). The song appears on Al Jamilat, (The beautiful ones), released earlier this year. The video shows Hamdan caught in stopped traffic and singing “I, who have been forsaken / Mine is the daily struggle / The cost of life here enrages me / I am the citizen betrayed” over a dark electronic pulse and percussion. Read on below as Hamdan calls out the patriarchy and global political corruption, and shares her expansive worldview.
The Bay Bridged: Tell me more about your process for “Balad.”
Yasmine Hamdan: I like riding taxis in Beirut and start conversing with drivers. The song “Balad” was inspired from those encounters. Some of those conversations triggered characters in my songs, political informers, or whistle-blowers. They are often openly critical against the political and economical ruling parties in power. They speak their mind. Of course their despair and anger echoes my sense of hopelessness regarding the corrupt and exploitative Lebanese political and economical system. That is unfortunately what has been happening for years and years in our region. The same people who conducted the 15 years of the Lebanese civil war are still in power, unpunished and organized like a mafia. Still sucking people’s blood.
Is exploitation and corruption particular to Lebanon? No! Is this a global and general phenomenon, it’s the world we live in. I would say yes! So there is no specific identity-claim in that song/video clip (political, racial, gendered, etc.) on the contrary. It refers to the world we live in and how it is organized to exclusively serve the interest of a very small minority in power.
TBB: Generally I do not like to ask questions about an artist’s clothing or appearance — but to create a context for American readers who might not immediately understand the depth of your statement as an artist, I’m curious whether there is a deeper meaning in you being bare-armed in this video. Is it a statement or just the clothes you happen to prefer?
YH: It’s just the clothes I wear. It’s neither a reaction nor a provocation. It’s just who I am. If it happens to provoke anyone, it can’t be my problem. Having said that, I think you are raising an interesting question related to patriarchal societies. I believe it is challenging to be a woman no matter where you come from, and it has, more or less, unfortunately always been the case. Because our societies, to certain extend of course and to different degrees, but with no exception, have always been struggling to come to terms with archaic traditions and beliefs. Women are regularly posed as a threat, and therefore need to be controlled. Even though the regression has been lately particularly dramatic in the Arabic and Muslim world, nonetheless I do believe that throwbacks are global and cyclic phenomenon. There is always a risk of relapse. Women’s rights are regularly threatened and jeopardized. Everywhere we face social and economical discrimination, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, prostitution, control etc. Our rights are regularly subject to negotiation.
TBB: As an icon from a part of the world with which our country has a very complicated relationship, do you have specific goals here in the US with your music? To connect? To share? Educate? Entertain? Inspire?
YH: Everything I try to voice is expressed in my music, and in my lyrics. I tried to explore those ideas very much in every record and especially in the latest one, Al Jamilat, that was released in the US by the amazing label, Ipecac. The album was made in a context of movement, travels, being on the road. I recorded it in four different countries. I wanted it to reflect an uprooted, nomadic, plural state of mind. I belong to different places and cultures and I have learned to create from a hybrid point of view. There is something magical about connecting through music, it’s like throwing a seed that gets carried away by wind, and it will ultimately become a beautiful tree somewhere, somehow. I am interested in exploring encounters where worlds meet, and not where they separate. I set my own rules, and it is natural for me to be in a form of defiance when it comes to borders, boxes or any form of nationalism in music. I do not serve a home, a fatherland, a religion, or any patriarch. I try to express myself in some mode of life that is true to myself and honest.
TBB: How/when did you first connect with Steve Shelley and Shahzad Ismaily (who contributed to the album and has played with Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, John Zorn, Marc Ribot)?
YH: Steve is a friend; he’s been very supportive and inspiring in so many ways. He performed the drums on the record. He also helped me organize my first recording sessions in Sonic Youth’s studio in Hoboken last January. He reached out to some great musicians and that was one of the starting points of this adventure. Shahzad Ismaeli whom Steve had brought, is a great multi instrumentalist, and recorded many instruments on this record.
Almost none of the musicians had heard my demos; they came with fresh ears. It could have been a dangerous but it went so great and I enjoyed that spontaneous context very much. I needed magic to take place so it had to be planned hazardously allowing coincidences to happen. That context had a major influence on the sound of the record.
TBB: How did the collaboration with Jim Jarmusch come to be?
YH: I met Jarmusch at a film festival in Marrakesh, where I was performing. We had a wonderful connection. He was in the middle of writing the script of Only Lovers Left Alive, and I think that he got the inspiration for the scene that night at the show. His art, his films and his music have inspired me always. He’s also a very funny bright and tender person. So I was even more excited to work with him. With the distance, I can say now that Only Lovers Left Alive helped my music reach a wider audience, it gave a really good push to my career, I am thankful to him for that. It might sound funny, but in some ways it felt like being blessed by the pope. You know when you sing in Arabic, no matter what your artistic propositions are, and regardless of the music you do, the system functions as such, that it creates ghettos and stigmas all ready-made for you. World music, for instance, can sometimes be the lumber-room in which all the non-English singers are dumped. It’s a racial appreciation and it does take in consideration the form of art you do. I’ve always felt it as an utterly depreciative packaging!
TBB: When was the last time you toured the US? Do you have a favorite city here? Have you been to the Bay Area before?
YH: We played in March in Brooklyn and at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville (amazing festival where I discovered some beautiful acts). I have never been to Seattle or Chicago so I am really excited about playing there. I love NY of course,