No desire to be a good girl – an interview with Yasmine Hamdan

Yasmine Hamdan at Café de la Danse, photo: CC

Yasmine Hamdan at Café de la Danse, photo: CC

by Charlie Crooijmans

Paris – Last week News and Noise! was at Café de la Danse in Paris, to attend the concert of Yasmine Hamdan. It was an electrifying show with elements of underground and mysticism. Singer-songwriter and actress Hamdan is one of those free spirits seeking for inspiration. She needs the music to be able to express herself – especially coming from Lebanon, a damaged postwar country – and is considered an underground icon throughout the Arab world ever since Soapkills, the duo she founded in Beirut. After moving to Paris, Hamdan recorded an album with musician/producer Mirwais, and also collaborated with CocoRosie for a while. Together with Marc Collin (Nouvelle Vague), she wrote and produced her first solo album in 2012, which was internationally released on Crammed Discs under the title Ya Nass. Both she and her song Hal appears in the Jim Jarmusch’ vampire movie Only lovers left alive. In a cute tea-house in the middle of Paris we had a very nice, open-hearted conversation, about her youth in postwar Lebanon, her non-conformism, her collection of old Arab songs and her music.

I got the impression that you want to do something about the cliches the West have of the Arab world, like what you said about corruption at the concert yesterday.

“The song I was singing was about corruption. I was just hinting, like a joke. I try to do that in every place, in every city I am, because when I talk about corruption, I will say, ‘No, I am not talking about you guys’. It’s funny because it is an universal theme. I think that it is human, being in society, power and money… It occurs everywhere. But about the cliche thing of the western world, it is part of what I am doing. For me it is a very personal journey. It is to feel better about who I am and about how I am looked at, or presented. I am very attached and rooted as an Arabic female artist. I do feel a lot of alienation sometimes, because I felt stigmatized when I was in the Middle East when I started with Soapkills.”

In what way?

“Well, you are doing something that doesn’t exist at that moment. You are doing underground music and this is not a notion that… You know, we were the first band to sing in Arabic, singing that kind of music (trip hop, dance, CC), doing these kind of events. It was a real adventure, you didn’t have electricity, you know, there were electricity cuts. You know, there is no culture for that. So it was a kind of difficult, but very thrilling.”

How did you succeed do it anyway?

“I don’t know, you know, you have to be stubborn, like me. We started in cafes and bars and we didn’t have this Internet thing where everybody communicates with everybody, which makes it easier. We had people following us, of course. And people realizing that this is interesting. But at the same time you didn’t even had a place with a good sound system, or a real sound system. There was one guy from whom we used to rent a sound system. He was not a sound engineer, but obliged to be, cause there was nobody who knew how to use that thing. He didn’t know either, but he would talk on the phone what we had to do. It was like, (shouts) ‘What? What are you saying?’ The electricity would cut, we had like anything that can imagine funny or surreal like a bomb, things weird happening. So, it was very thrilling. We kind of opened a door. It was not very easy for me as a girl. I am a real Arab; I come from this environment where somehow I should have had a written future or something that is more prestigious as a woman. Like investing in a husband, having a car, or whatever, two houses and servants. You know, this was the environment back then. In a way it was very conservative.”

But do you come from a conservative background?

“No, not really. It is complex. Lebanon is not that either. It is this and that. It is both. So you have people with a lot of vision and intelligence, desiring things and some freedom. And you have a lot of conservatism. These two tensions create a very interesting but difficult environment. My father comes from a secular, intellectual, kind of activist background. His family was somehow was socially and politically involved in socialism. They believed in justice, equality, and rights in this Arabic, proud, and culturally very rich nation. My mother comes from a family that is a little bit more conservative. They are more into bourgeoisie. I was somehow very lucky to be able to make my own choices, because nobody could stop me. I lived in many countries, I didn’t have this environment around me, that played a role in my decisions. But I did feel a lot of pressure – also from my family – they freak out, they don’t know. I start singing at the age of 16 and I am not singing classical Arabic music. I didn’t learn music. I sing like this weird music and for their ears I don’t know how to sing. And I am singing in bars and in weird places, go on TV, I wear skirts… When I started there was no structure and no recognition to anything what we were doing. So for them I was lost.”

How did you (Soapkills) get together?

“I met Zeid at school and this is how we started. I was so bored. Doing music kind of saved me. It allowed me to project myself and something bigger. I had no ambition to have my house on the countryside. I needed to grab my voice, I needed to express myself. You are a teenager in an environment that is very weird. Postwar, half destroyed, surreal. You don’t know why. You have nobody to address your questions in a mature way. Like, ‘why did this happen, or how did this happen, or why are these people still here?’ They are still here, by the way. So many years later, they are still here! So, if there is no place for a teenager, there was no other way for me but to grab my voice and find my way. Somehow create an alternative world for myself. To create hope and music helped me do that.”

Is the underground scene in Beirut still happening?

“Yes, of course! There are a lot of bands right now and not only in Lebanon, in all the Middle East; even if you go to Kuwait. People are opening up; there is more and more acknowledging. What happened also helped, like three years ago, young people in the Arab world grabbed their voices and started moving and realizing that they have a life. And that they have a say, that they have a space, that they can express and occupy. I think what happened – I don’t know if you can call it revolutions – but changes had created something interesting, created some movement. I remember going to Cairo before that and feeling somehow depressed, cause I was talking to this girl and she said, ‘Okay, I am 25 years old, I have always been ruled by the same guy and I don’t know why.’ This is very strange, because it creates a lot of frustrations, a lot of inequality and a lot of real problems. We are somehow paying the price for all of this right now. But at the same time there are some changes coming up. There is no narrative; I think we don’t know yet what will happen. But it is interesting.”

You sing in Arabic using different dialects.

“It is not always very different, and sometimes it is very different. Arabic works this way. You have the roots and all the ramifications. So a lot of words you can recognize. Because you know that the root is this, but the way it is translated in a dialect is different. The way that it is translated rhythmically or melodically, musically or even in the way that it is used in the grammar it is different. I lived in a lot of Arabic countries, I lived in the Gulf, and I listened to Kuwaiti music, Iraqi music. And I have been in the middle of that. I do feel that this is part of me, Egyptian music, Egyptian cinema, Lebanese music, and Syrian music. Even Indian music because I had many nannies who were from Sri Lanka and India, so this is very close to my heart and it is part of who I am. I think this gives me a lot of freedom to be able to articulate my melodies in different dialects. It’s very lucky.”

Yasmine demonstrates some examples to me, which I can’t decipher, but it sounds great. 

“Yes, it is great and fun! I have spent a lot of time trying to adapt in so many different environments. So for me it was a survival thing. In the beginning as you find yourself in a country and you are a foreigner, you have to find your way. I love languages. I love melodies. Maybe this is why I do music, because sometimes I listen to people speaking in different languages and I can hear the melody.”

It also nice to see how you experiment with your voice.

“With my nose… I like to do this voice, like in “Ya Nas” because it creates a different space. It is like putting me in a small box. The effects (on one of the microphones, CC) is like surfing on water, cause of all these delays. I put some effects on them and it distorts a little bit my voice. It also cuts the melody aspect or the romantic aspect, Arabic can sound a kind of romantic. So I try to create a contrast. And then you have the normal voice (the other microphone, CC), if you want to say something and be frontal. So it allows me to play. I really have fun and I would like to use more my voice. It creates a lot of space and different images.”

Tell me about your collection of Arab music.

“I started in Beirut and in the beginning I used to sing in English. I used to sing PJ Harvey, and Nirvana in Beirut in the nineties, you know. But I decided to sing in Arabic exclusively. At some point, because I fell in love with a Syrian singer diva called Asmahan, very old music. When I heard her, I got an impression that there is a sign here, because I was very lost, in what I wanted to do. I was starting a psychological degree, but I didn’t want to live in this serious environment. I needed something to open up. One night in a nightclub, I heard this woman. I remember my father used to play her music. The next day I started searching for her. There was this guy who was my dealer, he had a very small shop with a lot of cassettes. From him I got to know her name and then I started buying her music. I got a kind of obsessed. This is how I started. So I do have a lot of cassettes, but also a lot of MP3’s. Every time I meet with people we also have an exchange. I also research a lot on You tube, especially when it comes to places like Sudan, Somalian, or Pakistani.”

What makes you decide to sing a specific song?

“I don’t decide. It falls on me. I fall in love with the song. It is usually many times the singer that caries some emotion or something that becomes very personal. Like I start having a personal relationship with the song. Then I start feeling that I have the desire to sing it and to try things on it. So I take the freedom to reshape it.”

How?

“Just intuitively, just desire. It’s about being inspired or having some pleasure singing the words and changing some stuff and putting it in another context. It’s like you are incarnating a soul, it is something very soulful. It is very challenging and exciting too, because you take it somewhere else; take it out of all its cause and keep what you want. It is like sculpting.”

Like “La Mouch Ana Labki” of Abdel Wahab.

“La Mouch” is an Egyptian song, in a way it is very cabaret. That period (1930s, CC) is so rich. It is so touching for me, it moves me. The lyrics, the song itself and the singer. I used to sing his songs before. I really had his first music cassettes like 5 years ago, but I started already singing him with Soapkills, end of the nineties. Because my grandaunt used to sing his songs to me. I started singing his songs by listening to her. Writing down the lyrics and singing them on some weird underground trip hop beats.”

How does the audience react on these songs?

“Some people loved it. Other people would be more conservative. They would say that it is something that shouldn’t be touched. So I had this kind of reaction like, ‘This is taboo!’ But people got over it and eventually everybody is doing it right now. But if I had done it like a karaoke, it would have been okay. The fact that I would sing it, like four tones under, not really very precisely. Back then I didn’t have the technique. I also didn’t have the desire to be a good girl. I just want to sing it my way, with a lot of respect, of course. It is very inspiring because this also completes my work and feeds me a lot as an artist.”

Recently you had a concert in Cairo, what was that like?

“It was insane! I felt like a football game. I sang in the theater where Umm Kalthoum used to sing every Thursday. This theater was supposed to have been reopened after it got reconstructed. It looked like it have never been touched since the sixties, so it is really super super super dusty. I sat backstage and I imagined being her (Umm Kalthoum). It was already the perfect setting. We had maybe sold out with 400 more people extra in it. Crazy audience, people like sitting everywhere, on each other, like jumping the whole concert. It was just insane. It was like a trip. I had so much fun. They are a fantastic audience. I have a lot of songs in Egyptian, because I have been very inspired by Egyptian cinema and humor. They have so much humor and it is so sexual. Everything they say is like under the table. Everything is like funny, witty and a hint to something. There is something really sexy in the Egyptian culture. So it was really incredible.”

At the concert you were referring to a character from an Egyptian movie, what was that all about?

“I wrote this song “Aziza”. As I watched a lot of Egyptian movies – with a lot of criticism, but I would adhere to all this Egyptian drama – I think I integrated all these Egyptian girl characters. A lot of them are extremely inspiring sexy strong women. But there is also a lot of hypocrisy. When you look to the movies of the sixties it was much more liberal than the American (movies). You had real love scenes and a lot of belly dance. I sing in this song that there is always a guy trying to exploit an innocent poor girl. There is always this very hypocrite but funny dialogue, and somehow there is a relationship like a game. But it also talks about harassment, indirectly without pinpointing. And it is about women assuming their sexuality. I play a lot on that with the lyrics, because a lot of the words have different layers. I keep some distance, some shyness, but I do say things bluntly. I really use this indirect game, indirect metaphors. And it is fun for me to do that.”

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

“I think I am underground. I have this drive and it has given me a lot of power and somehow it opens, but also closes doors. Some parts, like in the Middle East, I had a tough time being there. You have to deal with the mentality. They would think that this is somehow not polite or a bit aggressive. In some ways like when I started with Soapkills, I remember I was stigmatized like, ‘Ah, she is impossible’. There are games that I don’t want to play, I don’t enter in and I don’t want to compromise. I don’t want to gain an audience in order to do this or that. I don’t want to censor myself. Some of the lyrics of Soapkills couldn’t pass on TV or on the radio. We were not exactly an Arabic band but we were singing in Arabic. They didn’t know where to put us, ‘You will not go on this radio’. ‘What you are saying would not please the Gulf audience at that point’. You had a like an indirect censorship. Now, everybody is okay with all of that. But back then, it was a problem. If you are saying something that put some tension, or put some question marks, it can be taken like a dangerous thing. Because it put things, like the institutionalized environment, a little bit in danger. But we have a lot of girls, pop girls wearing mini skirts, having plastic surgery and being half naked on TV, and nobody cares about that! But when you are saying something that make sense, it makes people freak out. Then you become The Impossible, whatever character person. It’s changing, but it is a process.”

Did you get any negative reactions?

“You always have negative and positive reactions, people that follow you and love you. Sometimes it takes time, it depends. There is a public aspect to what I am doing and you have to deal with it. It is always good to have some controversy. I would be bored to death if everybody loved me and if I would do political correct music. I wouldn’t do music eventually; it wouldn’t be interesting for me. And it is not interesting for anybody. It’s not my character and not my intellect; it is not where I want to go. So, but I think that it’s interesting, because you always have to deal with yourself and the rest of the world. Take some distance and remain down to earth. Never forget what’s the world about and why you are doing this. There is a spiritual dimension to what I am doing. I started doing music, because it kind of saved my life. I was depressed, I was in despair in this environment. I was bored. Somehow I did have a lot of existential questions. I come from this postwar generation and I have concretely seen pain around me and I also know that, you know, I am aware that the world is not a fantasy. And I don’t want to be a superstar and have a car and do this and that. There is also this dimension that nourishes my soul. There is also the reality of 80 or more percent of the world of people living a difficult life. I know that I am kind of lucky. I am privileged to be able to do what I love and even with all the struggles etc. It’s fine. We don’t know why we are here for, so let’s do something about it. This is why I somehow I think I am doing what I do.”

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2 thoughts on “No desire to be a good girl – an interview with Yasmine Hamdan

  1. Pingback: The vampiric end of “Only lovers left alive” - MenuDuJor

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