Yasmine Hamdan’s welcoming voice invited me over the phone. Having just landed in Seattle, Hamdan took some time before going out for a Lebanese dinner to speak to me for a bit. Known as an “underground” icon in the Arabic world, Hamdan is known for her lyrical tone and indie-electronic fusion, taking elements from all over the world until it’s perfected to her own liking. With her second solo album under her belt, Al Jamilat, Hamdan continues her U.S. tour and connecting people through her music. Despite the claims of being labeled as an “underground” artist, Hamdan didn’t think so much anymore. We talked about her beginnings, the latest album, tour, and throughout it all there was an effortless light that came through Hamdan. Her sense of warmth, which is also translated in her music, allowed for a “limitless” sense of freedom in her own skin.
“I don’t know what they mean about ‘underground.’ Yeah when I started, it was really underground and I can say with my band, back then we kinda started an underground scene and alternative music scene in the region. It was not really a notion that existed, from there I think it evolved and I’m looked as alternative, a different kind of artist, performing a kind of art with Arabic music but yeah underground is more related to my previous band I would say.”
“So, what made you, I guess, go into the alt-music area?”
“It was nothing really programmed. I’ve lived in many cities I and I started realizing that I had multiple identities, belongings. I need[ed] to find my own way of performing and singing really, and it came genuinely together in a very spontaneous way and I never had a strategy for that, it was just normal for me. I come from different places. I like to create from a hybrid point of view. For me it made sense to make all those different textures and sounds that I really liked without any rules, without having to follow any rules or codes and just do it freely. I listen to a lot of artists and musicians that inspire me. That kinda exploration and of course also meeting different musicians and artists always inspires new ideas.”
“You mention the hybrid point of view, why is that so important to you?”
“It was just me. Sincere to myself, true to myself.”
“Was it also more important also to represent females? I feel the last album, first was so beautiful and I’m sure a lot of things got lost in translation, but I just felt that your point of view towards women was stronger. Not sure if you wanted to do that on purpose.”
“I don’t know. I just, of course, I am a woman and I am just doing what I feel is right for me to do. I never thought ‘oh I’m doing this because I’m a feminist‘ or all of that because this to me was more theoretical since I’m “underground”- I’ve been fighting for everything I am today and for everything I believe in, so I guess that was a really big drive. Through music I was able to realize a lot of things to also improvise a way of living and to improvise a career in a way, and also have a voice and create a space of freedom where I can exert that- explore my femininity, and all possibilities I want to have in my life. So, I think, it was for me just natural, just made sense. Fighting for things I wanted around me and I believed in. In some countries I lived in, I did feel discrimination because I was a woman and that created an anger, but with that you can transform this anger or this feeling -discrimination – and make something creative out of it and that was my choice.”
As Hamdan spoke there was a radiating glow of strength that seemed to drip from her last word. Pioneering the electronic duo Soapkills, the first of its kind in Beruit, Hamdan seemed to possess so much humility to this accomplishment. Hamdan spoke in a vivid way, every now and then looking for the perfect word, the perfect texture to get her point across. The smallest raw details allowed for a better picture to be painted. Not one to shy away from politics, I brought up the importance of this, if any. Hamdan’s quick response was one without hesitation and thought: “because it touches me.”
She went on to talk about the desire and change she wishes to see. Ironically, this change and desire came from an outside perspective as Hamdan mentioned that she was an “outsider, insider,” accounting for time she lived abroad. “You can love your country but also see the problem. You can love a person and also see his or her limit of them [the person].” Momentarily she took a pause and apologized, as she became situated, mentioning how cold she was in her room while casually laughing and continuing to explain her “active” point of view, socially speaking. The subject of criticism came up and I asked if there was one moment she was really criticized.
“Yeah in the beginning with Soapkills it was very challenging because a lot of people started following us, because we were aliens in that environment. And back then you really didn’t have the culture or young people going to concerts or really having musicians to play with, or even having venues… I lived many years abroad and when I came back to Beruit, I really felt in so many ways like a stranger and that created an alienation in me and I think through music I managed to find connection with the place and with this culture that I really loved, which is this Arabic culture. And in the past I lived a very scattered childhood with a lot of rupture and a lot of rupture through my own culture, and so through music I managed to create a geography or a chronology of things.
“I link to a lot of emotional states and so I wanted to create with that. I really didn’t know how to sing Arabic the way it should be sang – with the codes, because Arabic is kind of like classical music it has a lot of rules and codes and it’s kind of sacred – and when I started with Soapkills, I just did whatever I felt. And I felt really more emotional singing Arabic than singing other languages because I learned 5 languages. And then I started really digging into old Arabic music and into dialects and it became a passion and when I came to bring it with my band mates, we improvised with an electronic texture and I was singing freely in Arabic but just with a certain attitude, with certain words that maybe would be perverse regarding women, regarding this environment, also a bit critical regarding this situation around us. I was singing old songs like a punk singer, was really difficult…I didn’t want to fit into the society…I’m aware that I’m privileged in many ways and I’m really lucky.”
“Looking back at this luck, did you ever imagine you would be at where you are at now?”
“I had no idea of nothing. When I started doing music I was just, I did it because I was desperate, I was bored….”
“You were desperate?”
“Yeah, the place was great but you know I was the post war generation, I spent my teenage years in a city that was half destroyed – we still have some of those problems still- but back then it was really much more, 15 yrs of civil war and you don’t know why it happened, don’t know why so much pain around you, a lot of problems in normal life: no electricity, shortage- no water sometimes, you had to get organized sometimes- there was so many survivors around you and it was a strange moment and it was a strange feeling. There was something so hopeful and something so damaged at the same time. So it was very inspiring. It was weird. Also I did not fit in the society, so I was desperate, I wanted something to make me dream, kinda like a shelter, so that was my first ambition. My dream was to just sing and be able to do it on a professional level and be able to learn, and I didn’t have any clue on how I can do that and I think also I had personal ambition to becoming a stronger person and getting to know yourself better. Because when you work – at least for myself – [I] started to learn about myself, my limits, and my possibilities and how I can expand all of that and myself so it was a tool for me, really to get to know myself better and get to know others better. To get to communicate in a magical way with music- music for me is really a magical place. It’s kinda like a pocket where people can meet and produce something that is more than, I don’t know, it makes you bigger. It makes you communicate more, there’s something very magical about it. So that was my first drive but I always wanted things to go bigger and I’ve always had the dream to be able to perform and get better and meet more people. It’s more like when you fall in love, the passion….I started in an environment that really would have never have, it was not realistic, so when I look at myself back then I realized I had faith somehow.”
Continuous mentions of hope we switched to her latest album, Al Jamilat. Written on the road while Hamdan was on tour for her previous album, Ya Nass, Hamdan had a vision. Filled with Western textures, electronics, guitars, but holding on to her thought of how more sand and winds,” explaining that she sees with images and colors, allowed for an sensory exploration on the album. Compared to the last album, Hamdan mentioned that she had to take a “leap” with this record, as she started out as a co-pilot, but the end of the album she realized she was simply the pilot.
Just finishing up playing in Chicago, and with a KEXP session about to make its debut soon, Hamdan’s excitement and genuine joy raised anticipation in myself to witness her in Los Angeles at the El Rey Theater. As Hamdan went into detail of what to expect about the show, regarding moods, our conversation drifted. The comfort speaking to Hamdan brought out the reliability of also feeling like I didn’t belong – speaking of Arabic and Mexican decent. Hamdan’s wisdom and perspective seeped through in her response to me: “It’s not so important at the end of the day. If you choose whatever you decide what you like to be. For me, the place, my identity, my Arabic identity comes from the music first, from the humor, somethings I relate, the rest I don’t care or don’t like.”
Hamdan continued to thank me as I raved about her music. I finally allowed her to go eat and she joyously laughed “I want to see you dance next week.”
Oh, I will.
Discover Yasmine Hamdan in person, Tuesday, November 14th at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles.