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YASMINE HAMDAN

Yasmine Hamdan, sun of the Orient

December 28 2017

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"All can hear, but only sentient beings can understand." This quote from Khalil Gibran published in 1914 in his collection Laughs and Tearsseems destined for Yasmine Hamdan, that voice that unearths ruins, the sublime. - Private Jean.

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A singer and singer of Lebanese origin, she traveled to all corners of the world fleeing wars during her childhood before returning to Beirut at the end of the civil war where her gift appeared to her: music. She formed in 1997 Soapkills group with Zeid Hamdan who will shake the codes of Arabic music and invent the underground scene of the region.

Ten years later she created an electronic music duet with Mirwais, one of the founders of Taxi Girl and who was the producer of Madonna. Together they want to transmit the Arab culture. Years later, here she is on an international tour, five albums in her pocket, an appearance in a film by Jim Jarmusch in 2014. Enough to make envy more than one.

Yasmine Hamdan is all that we love about the Orient, its charms, its mystery, its spicy beauty, with a look at the world. As a trend of identity retreat pervades the planet, Yasmine Hamdan continues to sing the beauty of a world where cultures intermingle. This explorer of the world does the same with the music: she perpetuates the tradition of the Arab music that she mixes with electro and pop. She tells us about her journey, with her feet on the ground and her head in the stars.

Can you tell us about your childhood?
I had a rather complicated childhood. I was born in Lebanon during the civil war and we were forced with my family to leave the country. My first remarkable memories come from my years at the gates of a desert, "AleaynWhich means "the eye" in Arabic. My father was an engineer, he was followed to stay with his family, he built a bridge in the area. This period marked me, I like being close to the desert, I feel good. We then went to Abu Dhabi, always for my father's work. It was a city that offered all the comforts for a family, but we were bored. My mother wanted to return to a more cosmopolitan life. My parents decided to send us to live in Greece, because my mother's brother lived there, he had married a Greek. I was educated in a French school, next to Athens, and I found myself overnight in an environment where no one spoke Arabic. I was passionate about the French language at that time, classical literature in particular: at 11 years, I had already read all Balzac and Zola. A few years later, my father was found in Kuwait. We stayed there for two years until Saddam Hussein invaded the country. We were forced to return to Beirut, where we lived the last months of the civil war.

How was the return to Beirut?
The return was really weird. I tried to adapt, to find my bearings. The context was special: I was back in a country that was supposed to be mine after traveling all over the world. When the war was over, people, in a desire to live, wanted to erase everything, to be convinced that everything was possible while there were still many dormant problems. So I felt both hope and profound discomfort. That's how I started creating music. It was a refuge for me. I have always had a secret passion for music, but so far I have not listened carefully, I did not analyze the compositions. I felt strong emotions with certain music but I did not know how to explain it. So I started to pay attention. I was still in high school and I was listening to Kate Bush, Janice Joplin, Radiohead. These artists lent themselves so well to the atmosphere of the city: in the ruins, there was beauty and melancholy. A tree rose majestically in the rubble of a house, one could enter most buildings. In Beirut, a museum was opened in memory of the civil war in a place that was a sniper marker. They recovered family photos lost in the ruins of a neighboring photo studio and I remember that at the time I was back in this studio, I had seen some of these images, it was very emotionally speaking . People's past could be traced. It is through all these moments that I gradually became my musical education.

That's when you created the Soapkills group?
A bit later. At first I composed music myself, but it was very raw, almost inaudible! I made about 50 sounds a minute in English, I experimented, it was very punk. One night, I came across a piece in a nightclub - 30 Arabic music, very sharp, beautiful and moving, that my grandmother sang to me - and I had a revelation. I wanted to familiarize myself with this style. I toured record shops of the time and I started collecting records of Arab singers and singers of those years. That's when I thought I needed to sing in Arabic. It was a way for me to be sincere to myself, it was my identity. In parallel, I met Zeid, with whom I formed the group Soapkills. He loved music, he was French-speaking, the meeting took place naturally, at school. We started to compose together. It was spontaneous and quite dark. Zeid at the very beginning sang in English. When I arrived, I started to sing in Arabic and all the doors closed. The radios wanted to broadcast the songs in English, but in Arabic it was out of the question. Arabic music has codes and guidelines to respect, themes to address. I was talking about machismo, patriarchy, and of course, a woman did not have the right to address these topics, it was very frowned upon.

Do you think that for the time, in Lebanon, your proposal was too radical?
Of course! With other artists with whom we collaborated, we created the Lebanese underground scene! None of this existed at the time. I really keep memorable memories of this period. We were creating crazy happenings! Everything was to be done and people were excited by the novelty. There were concerts in churches, old factories, plays in "haunted" houses. The experiences we had were crazy. For example, the live at Circus: during the concert, Israel decides to bomb the power station and suddenly the electricity goes off. We decided to record the concert with a tape and it still kept the recording. We waited a little while, the electricity came back and we decided to resume the concert. We played in Damascus in a garden and half of the audience was on stage dancing the Dabkeh with us. We played in front of the king of Jordan and I was told that during the concert he had earaches. It was a fantastic time and it opened the way today for lots of amazing bands and artists.

There is certainly openness and greater freedom today. But do not you think that oriental music is still too vampirized by singers like Haifa Wehbe or Nancy Ajram?
I think it's really different. I love Haifa Wehbe, it amuses me and I can dance on it, but it's not an artist. It's entertainment like many Lebanese singers do. We need mainstream; the themes are light and people want to be entertained simply with something standardized. Why not? But in the end, it shows the ambivalence that reigns in the world: Haifa Wehbe posing in sexy outfit, it does not shock anyone, but a woman who is committed and who is against the system, it bothers.

After Soapkills why did you decide to go to Paris?
We were finalizing the last Soapkills album. We had signed with an independent label, unfortunately this is the time when they all went bankrupt. Zeid wanted to stay in Beirut, I wanted to go to Paris. The group split up. I wanted to see something else and especially to professionalize me, I knew that staying in Beirut with the group, in these conditions, it would never happen. I felt like I was fighting against windmills, I was tired.

You are quickly in the spotlight with YAS How do you perceive this period today?
When I moved to Paris, I had models and I wanted to offer them to a producer. I met Mirwais, who was the producer of Madonna at the time. We started the project YAS It was interesting but very complicated. I moved from an independent group to Universal, with an internationally renowned producer. It was not at all the same pace, I made a big gap. And at the same time I needed to understand something, I needed to go there. I wanted to make this album in Arabic with a modern electro-pop sound, get out of my comfort zone. I wanted a break and, in a way, tell people that I'm free, that if I want to become a blonde with blue eyes or reincarnate as a drag queen, I'll do it. Many people were sensitive to this project because there were singles, hits. We heard a lot Azza in nightclubs in Cairo, Get it right in France. The people who loved Soapkills did not follow me at all and did not support me for a while: it was like selling my soul to the devil. But for me, it was a challenge and I'm glad to have picked it up. This allowed me to assume my image, not to hide myself.

You are the first to have dared to mix Arabic with Western sounds. Why is it important for you to take this language to other horizons?
As I said, my choice of the Arabic language is simply a sincere choice, to stay true to myself, to my roots. I mix indeed Western sounds, Arabic and oriental acoustic singing. But I think that my true modernity comes from the themes that I address: they are not the same as those discussed 30, 40 or 50 years ago. There have been many singers who have always been influenced by Western music, including Asmahan and Fairuz. What's more, in their day, this marriage was more than natural. In the 30 years, when the universal music notes were adopted, there was a real opening. The Arab world has changed since then, now we only talk about western music and oriental music, like a break and like to draw up borders.

Ya Nass is your first album, which you sign of your full name: Yasmine Hamdan. Why have you had this desire after three albums?
I think it was finally time for me to assume my sound, to trust me. It was logical. With this album, which I produced with Marc Collin, I started to create a family, especially around the Arabic language. Musicians, directors, a multitude of people from different backgrounds and different professions. I met Jim Jarmusch, for whom I composed the song Hal that appears in the album, at this time. I sing it at the end of his film Only lovers left alive, by staging me in a cafe in a small dark alley of Tangier. It was a great moment for me, there was something very liberating that allowed me, above all, to reach a different audience.

You have just released your second album under your name, Al-Jamilat (Les Magnifiques, ed) in March this year. It refers to the work of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poet. Why this reference?
I always wanted to sing a poem and I was looking for this album to make a composition in this sense. I believe in the signs, I came across this poem by chance and he immediately touched me. The rhythm was perfect, the words sweet and there emerged a very spicy beauty with sublime metaphors. He is also very positive, he talks about the woman and the fragility of beauty. It is a tribute to all women, and it looks like me because my songs are mostly composed of different female characters, with stories a little crazy. So I felt this poem in me. And because it means "The Magnificent" simply.

Your album is a crossroads of cultures with its varied sounds. How do you get to that?
This is the first time that I record in different cities around the world and I think it feels in the music and in the sounds indeed. I initially prepared models in New York with incredible musicians like Shahzad Ismaily, on 4-5 days of recording. I came back to Paris and I redesigned the pieces and the structures, to articulate everything. I felt that things were still missing. I made new recordings in Paris, Beirut and finally in London with the English producers Luke Smith and Leo Abrahams. These musicians grew my ideas and my vision, recording with them fascinated me. They are architects of the sound, they have refined the material that I brought by subtly bringing their touch. I think that's what makes the album is rich in sounds.

You still engage with the clip of Balad, one of the 11 songs that make up the album. What's behind this piece?
I think we are all involved in a certain way in the positions we take on a daily basis, and I have always been personally involved. With this clip and this song, I wanted to translate the feeling that I had, this respect that I feel for the people who live in this city which is Beirut and in a country as corrupt as Lebanon. The system poisons the people and does everything to exhaust them by manipulating them. There are divisions and tensions between different minorities because of their fault, with the specter of religion. These people suffocate and the desire to write this piece came to me because I often take the taxi when I am in Beirut. I listen to the stories that the drivers tell me, their situation, and I wanted to talk about them because for me they are heroes. It's much more direct than what I usually do.

Projects for 2018?
I'm going to rest for the moment. But I have several things on the way for next year, you will know it quickly.

"In the ruins there was beauty and melancholy."

"Arabic music has codes and guidelines to respect, themes to address. I was talking about machismo, patriarchy, and obviously a woman did not have the right to address these topics, it was very frowned upon. "

"We created the Lebanese underground scene!"

"We created crazy happenings, everything was to be done and people were excited by the novelty. We did concerts in churches, old factories, we created plays in haunted houses"