Country to Country: Yasmine Hamdan on writing and music in the Middle East

Lebanese singer songwriter and electronic music producer Yasmine Hamdan, called “the modern face of the Middle East," came to Boston on December 4th to play a show at Paradise Rock Club. Now based in Paris, she was one on the founding members of Soapkills, one of the first electronic music bands in the Middle East. We ask her a few questions about music, politics, gender, and playing in Boston.

As far as I know, this is your first show in Boston. What brings you here to Boston? How is playing a show in the States different from playing in the Arab world?

Some dates were planned in the US: New York, Detroit, Washington, and then we also added Toronto--and Boston was on the way, so we decided to perform there. It’s also a city close to universities, so it made sense to perform there. It’s great to be playing the States; it’s always wonderful, and it’s actually a lot of fun--I normally tour in Europe, and so it’s really fun to be in the States.

When writing lyrics, do you imagine a specific audience? What would you like others to gain from your music?

I don’t think of a specific audience whenever I write a record; when I write the songs I like to connect with myself and try to understand what I want to express and eventually try to express it in the best way. And I really do my best; I’m guided by my intuition and I listen to a lot of music, I do a lot of research, and of course a lot of my work is also enriched and enhanced by the multiple collaborations I have with the very talented musicians and producers I work with, so I really see it as a space where I can be with those people. A lot of those things are transmitted, a lot of things are experimented, and it’s a very interesting process, and a very pleasurable way of communicating and somehow of enlarging your capacities and enlarging your world. It’s always a mystery how it will be received, and how people will follow or feel about it or the emotions that they will have and it’s always exciting. And I personally think that I have a quite adventurous audience, a curious audience, so it’s always kind of a bet, and it’s exciting, it’s scary, but it’s part of the game.

Your lyrics are narration heavy, politics heavy. How do you decide what to write about?

I don’t know, isn’t art always political in a way? I’m not talking about politics, but more as a political engaged voice. I’ve always thought of myself being an artist as someone making choices, having responsibilities, ethics, fighting for some values, proposing, raising questions, so I’ve always thought that, and always believed that this is a space where you can question things and resist and eventually get some answers, raise questions. Sometimes the lyrics of my songs are maybe a bit more political in the sense of political--on the ground--but I’ve always thought of myself as a political artist and as an engaged one. And the fact that I’ve always sung in Arabic and fought for it was a way for me to explore that idea of being political and exploring what it means to be an Arab artist, a woman singing in Arabic in the middle of the 90s in Beirut. It was not really the trend at that time, and it kind of helped me create my own version of my own identity and create my own rules. And yeah, I think it kind of saved my life, in a way. It helped me raise some questions and have a voice, and maybe open some subjects, break some taboos.

How do you produce your music? Where did you get the idea to make the remix album of Al Jamilat?

Each album has its own story. This latest record, Al Jamilat, I worked on it while I was on tour with the album Ya Nass, the previous one. And then when I had my demos I went to New York and I recorded it, I only recorded part of the instruments. And then I went back to Paris and started doing the editing and added things, and I recorded also in Beirut. And I finished it, finalized it in London with two producers.

It was kind of a crazy adventure, but I needed it--I needed to go through that and challenge myself and do the work intuitively as it went. I went with the flow. I’m not sure if I want to do the same for my next record, so it depends, really. It depends on your own personal desire or need: I needed it for that record. So now I’m actually in a different mood. I like to work in one place with some artists, but I’d like it to be different. The amazing things about creation and creating and working on an album is that every time, it's a new adventure, so every time you’re discovering yourself; you’re discovering working with other people, and you’re evolving, so it’s a very alive thing. It’s always in movement.

The remix album just came. My label wanted to ask me if I was interested in doing some remixes for the record, and then, along with the label and the management, we came up with some ideas, and we contacted the people, and it just happened. We had great reactions and great propositions, and we loved all of the remixes we got, and we decided to release them. It was not planned; in a way, it just came naturally.

How, if so, does gender play a role in the music you make? What about your upbringing?

I mean, I think all the things I am, or I’ve lived in my education or my upbringing, or where I come from, or what I listen to, or the choices I make, or the people I meet, how I survive some situations, and so on--everything created my identity, my musical identity, so I would say that it’s a mix of all of that. And maybe through music I also was able to exist the way I wanted to, in a society where maybe some things would have been dictated to me, and so it was my way of deciding who I wanted to be and kind of helped me socially exist differently and freely somehow.

You started making music in the late 1990s with Soapkills. How has the scene of indie music in the Middle East changed since then?

Yeah the scene changed in the Middle East. Now there are many more opportunities, many more bands, good bands touring. When we started with Soapkills at the end of the 90s, it was at the end of the civil war, and there was absolutely nothing. It was a phase of transition and it felt like everything was new and everything was ready for us, but also it felt so exciting and it was so experimental somehow--it was really the beginning of things. And there was a lot of hope, somehow, that some change would come. You know how it is after fifteen years of civil war: people want to breathe, people want to live. The whole region started moving. There was kind of a form of awakening, and it was before social media, so news about our band was circulating in a very confidential way. It was super exciting, and we really had the opportunity to create a lot of artistic events and happenings and really conceptual manifestations, and it was fun, but really difficult.

What are you listening to right now? Any music recommendations?

I’ve been touring for two years. and before that, recording, and before that, touring, and so on. So it’s really difficult for me to listen to music when that’s the case, because I’m surrounded by it, but I have some people I go back to--some really good Arabic musicians.

You can check out Asmahan; she’s a Syrian singer from the 30s, and she has an incredible voice. And I also listen to this lady who is Pakistani, her name is Abida Parveen. I have one album in particular, Om Safar, that you can’t find on the internet, that I brought from India. And I listen to a lot of Japanese music, and a lot of rock bands, from Massive Attack to Radiohead to PJ Harvey, to Leonard Cohen, to Lil Young, to anyone that is inspiring, actually. And it also depends on the periods I go through.

So yeah, I try to listen to a lot of music from various places, and I’m really open to all kinds of styles, and I normally like music with lyrics that I don't understand. And I don’t necessarily try to understand the lyrics, because I always want to dream the music and get the music and the sense of the song while having it processed by my head.

Anything we can look forward to for the future?

I hopefully will get some rest, because I’ve decided to stop touring now and start working on something new, and take my time. I’m really excited about that, so I’m taking it easy, slowly, and I’ll see what, how and when I’ll get inspired to start working on something new.

Also, when you tour, and when you’re in the middle of launching an album and promoting it, it takes so much of your energy, and it’s really important to be able to take some distance and refill yourself spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally, and connect with your friends, your family, the people you love and try to have a normal life. That’s really important, so I will try to do that for now and see where it leads me.

Alicia Chen is a DJ for the Record Hospital, which airs every Monday to Friday from 10pm to 5am. Read more about Yasmine Hamdan here, and check out more of her music on SoundCloud.