Yasmine Hamdan was part of the innovative Lebanese band Soap Kills, but she has risen from the underground to team up with Madonna’s producer, Mirwais. Here, the singer talks to Kaelen Wilson-Goldie about her plans to take Arabic pop to the world.
The first single from Aräbology, Yasmine Hamdan’s debut collaboration with the high-profile pop producer Mirwais, opens with the Lebanese singer’s deep, velvety voice counting in Arabic from one to five, skipping around from five to 10 and stuttering back and forth between six and 12. Then, over a driving four-four beat, Hamdan switches to English and sings: “Young girl, young boy, get it right, get it wrong, get it loud, get it strong.”
As far as lyrics go, the single, Get It Right, is pretty far from profound. But it has that essential, elusive quality of pop perfection. Hear it on the radio or in a club and the track is guaranteed to creep into your cranial cavity and stick. In no time, you will find yourself counting along – “wahad, tnain, tleteh, arba, khamsa” – even if you don’t understand a word of Arabic. For that is the ultimate ambition of Aräbology, to bring the Arabic language into mainstream pop culture on an international level.
Get It Right may be the first real test of that ambition. It is the only track on the album where Hamdan and Mirwais wrote the lyrics together, which would make you think that Mirwais – né Mirwais Ahmadzaï, the Swiss-born, Paris-based, Afghan-Italian studio genius who worked with the punk band Taxi Girl in the 1980s, produced the endlessly infectious Fischerspooner song Never Win, and revamped Madonna’s sound three times over on the albums Music, American Life and Confessions On A Dance Floor – knows at least enough Arabic at this point to count to 12. But in fact he does not.
“Mirwais worked on the songs for three years without understanding one word,” Hamdan says. “And he still doesn’t! We had a very strong collaboration. It was intense. And the fact that he didn’t know or understand the lyrics was interesting. I would try to translate, but you cannot translate humour, you cannot translate references, you cannot translate stuff that means something to you culturally. He would know that there was something he was not getting, but also that there was something he liked.”
The idea is that if Mirwais can launch Hamdan’s lyrics into the pop cultural stratosphere without understanding a word of what she’s saying, then maybe listeners around the world can embrace Arabic music without finding the language a barrier or a threat. There is, of course, a political dimension to this. If Mirwais and Hamdan can make Arabic both digestible and danceable, then maybe they can render it less demonised in the world.
“In western culture, we hear about Arabs every day – in a bad way, because of terrorism, etc – but we lack cultural representations coming from those countries that could mix with western culture,” Mirwais said in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Le Courrier two years ago. “I don’t want to do world music,” he added, “but a good western production with a real Arab identity.”
Of course, counting to 12 might seem a rather insipid interpretation of Arab identity and culture. But it might also be a logical place to begin. Anyway, pop songs are a lot like horoscopes. The words can mean everything and nothing. What matters more is the music and the image, and on that front, Hamdan has an advantage. In addition to having a sultry, mesmerising voice, she is also quite stunning.
Yasmine Hamdan was born in Beirut in 1976, to a middle-class family originally from south Lebanon. Like so many Lebanese of her generation, she grew up in nomadic fashion. “I lived on and off in my childhood in Lebanon, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Greece,” she says. “We were in Kuwait in the 1990s, and we had to run away because of the Iraqi invasion. So we came back to Lebanon, and by that time it was the end of the civil war.”
Hamdan’s early exposure to music was equally diverse. When she was a child, she remembers her grandmother listening to the Belgian singer-songwriter Jaques Brel and her father listening to everything from Fairouz and Umm Kulthoum to Bach and Beethoven to Abba and the Egyptian-Italian disco diva Dalida. She also remembers the sudden explosion of Arabic pop singers in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We had this period when, I don’t know why, there were suddenly these Arabic songs that became so popular,” she says. “All these Egyptian pop songs by people like Adaweyya, and all these Lebanese pop songs, very kitschy, very innocent, and this in the middle of the war, too. There was Sami Clark, there was the Bandaly family. You had all the good stuff, too, like Ziad Rahbani, and you had the kitschy stuff, like Raghib Alameh and Walid Toufic. I was very much interested in old Arabic music from Egyptian cinema. Abdel-Halim Hafez and Mohammad Abdel-Wahab. I grew up on this.”
Just as Arabic pop took off in the region, an alternative music scene began to form in Beirut, starting with a rock band called the Lombrix, which was fronted by two young musicians named Zeid Hamdan and Cherif Saad. “We played everywhere – basements, garages, street festivals,” recalls Zeid. In due time, Zeid Hamdan met Yasmine Hamdan and discovered that they shared more than just the same surname. “We met and recorded one song,” says Zeid. “But then Cherif and all the members of The Lombrix had to study and work and go do their lives, and me, since I didn’t have any work and I didn’t want to work, I told Yasmine, ‘We’ll be stars, we’ll write, we’ll compose, we’ll do something,’ and she believed me.”
Zeid and Yasmine wrote a song together called Soap Kills, which was meant, at the time, as a scathing commentary on the reconstruction of Beirut after the civil war.
“With all the war being wiped clean,” recalls Zeid, “we thought, wow, it’s shiny and it’s awful.” More than just a song, they also thought Soap Kills would be a good name for a band. And so, one of the legendary stories of the Beiruti underground began.
For nearly a decade, Soap Kills was held up as the next big thing. It was a band that blended old-school Arabic music with trip-hop and downbeat techno, a band that served as an unprecedented artistic hothouse for live experimentation and studio innovation, a band that was always on the verge of a major record deal but never quite made it happen.
The early Soap Kills sound was anchored by an old Roland MC 303 Groovebox that Zeid Hamdan still has in his studio today. “When The Lombrix split up, I bought this thing to replace a drummer and a bassist and a guitarist and a symphonic band and everything,” he says. “Everything sounded so weird that when we adapted our music on this, it gave us style.”
Beirut’s visual artists, filmmakers and creative types were drawn to that style, and Soap Kills soon became a fully collaborative effort. Wadih Safieddine, who later co-founded the Né à Beyrouth Festival of Lebanese Film, came on board as an ad hoc manager and got Zeid a proper sampler, along with small financial contributions that he collected from friends. The French Cultural Centre gave the Hamdans a series of short scholarships to study music software and technology in France. Contemporary artists such as Rabih Mroué and Walid Sadek joined the band on flute and trumpet, and co-wrote several tracks on the masterful Soap Kills album, Bater.
The band used to pack into tiny clubs on Monot Street, and play to rapturous fans, all of whom took the music personally as reflections of themselves and their lives. The Lebanese directors Danielle Arbid, Ghassan Salhab, Wael Noureddine, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige all used Soap Kills songs on their soundtracks. The band became the underground sound of Beirut, its youth, and its future.
“But all this time Yasmine was dreaming of leaving this country,” explains Zeid. “We went to France. We recorded an album with a label that went bankrupt. We were living like dogs. Really. I was living like a bandit.” Zeid Hamdan hated France. Yasmine Hamdan loved it. Differences both personal and professional began to emerge and in 2005, the band split up for good.
“Zeid was a very important person for me because when I met him he was doing music and he pushed me,” recalls Yasmine. “We had a very strong relationship. We did this band, we performed, we did albums, we were the first Lebanese group naive enough to think that you could make it, even if there was nothing, no structure, nothing, you could make it happen. And somehow it worked. But it took a long time and after seven years,” she says, “everything has a beginning and an end, and after seven years, I wanted to try something else. After seven years, Zeid and I were no longer on the same wavelength. So we stopped the band.
“When we stopped, we both had so many propositions. But for me, I was already living in Paris, and I was searching for myself. And for me, it was never an option to do Soap Kills again.”
It was around this time that Hamdan met Mirwais at a Madonna concert in Paris. A mutual friend, the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, with whom Hamdan has been romantically linked for years, introduced them. “He already knew my voice and he liked it,” Hamdan says of Mirwais. “And he had a curiosity about Arabic music.”
At the time, Hamdan was trying to get a project off the ground that would blend Arabic music with electro-pop. She talked to Mirwais about it, but he was busy working with Madonna and recommended another producer to Hamdan instead. Nothing came of the connection. “Then I saw him a few months later, and he was somehow more available. I think he was searching for himself somehow. He had worked with the biggest pop stars in the world and I think, he was like OK, what am I going to do now? So he asked me to send him my demos and I sent him my demos and starting from that point the collaboration began.”
They decided early on to call their collaboration Yas, rather than pegging the music to Hamdan’s name alone. “Yasmine is too exotic,” she argues. “I mean, imagine. You would hear Yasmine and you would think Esmeralda. The name is like this. No. We are doing electro-pop. We did everything we could to get out of the world music thing. It’s very important. This is why we worked hard on the image. We worked with people like Jean-Baptiste Modino and Stéphane Sednaoui, who did the album cover and the first video clip, which we shot in Egypt. He also did a video clip where Mirwais and I are on the moon. We tried to get out of the exotic stuff. Yas is the diminutive of Yasmine. But it could also be a band. It’s ambiguous. And it fits the electro-pop image.”
It took Hamdan and Mirwais three years to write, polish, record and refine the 12 tracks on Aräbology, which was finally released on Universal in June. “It was hard for both of us to find the crossing point together,” says Hamdan. “Mirwais was very protective of his work, and I was also very protective of mine. And so we had many ups and downs and we really took our time. This is why it took three years. We didn’t try to do fusion. I respected what he was doing but at the same time, somehow, I had to fight for what I wanted.”
Hamdan recorded many of the vocal tracks alone in her home studio. “I would spend hours or days just recording one song, coming and going and coming back to it again.” Hamdan says she was constantly trying to achieve two things related to meaning and sound. “I was always thinking that a certain word, for example, could be sung with a certain emotion, with this emotion here more than that emotion there, because I think, in this way, you can unconsciously connect with the people who would not get the lyrics in Arabic.
“I was always working on two levels. I wanted people in the Arab world to identify with the songs and the lyrics. I knew this kind of music, electro-pop, was not going to be familiar. So I really had to work on something that would sound authentic. At the same time I always had in mind the people who would not get the words, and for them, the language should not be a barrier or a frontier or a checkpoint.
“So I had to find solutions, and to search. When I was composing and working on the songs, it was important for me to reappropriate the songs and the music. So this is why I dug into connections and references from the past, from my childhood. I wanted to do something that was shaabi, popular, and something that was political, too.”
One of the unexpected tricks on Aräbology is tucked into Hamdan’s accent. She sings in a combination of Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian and Kuwaiti dialects. More than an effort to appeal to listeners across the Arab world, she says this is a matter of playing with meaning and melody. “It was natural for me. I lived in many Arab countries. I wanted to create contrasts in the songs. Some words I love in a Palestinian accent more than in a Lebanese. You have a melody and it can die because of the word you choose. The lyrics have an intimate connection with the melodies. So I played with the sound, musicality and rhythm of different dialects. I had fun. I enjoyed it. This is the most important part, the balance between frustration and pleasure.”
Besides Get It Right, none of the tracks on Aräbology has quite the same club potential or confectionery pop appeal. One of the songs, Coït Me, is merely a retooled Soap Kills track. Others are paced with acoustic guitars rather than electronic squelches. If Hamdan is writing her own crossover success story, it will be interesting to see where it ends up. She has been promoting the album for four months now – including a performance in Lebanon at the Byblos festival last month, which was rather underwhelming and marred by shambolic organisation – but she will only begin touring in earnest in September.
In the meantime, she is keeping her alternative, avant-garde credentials intact. Earlier this summer, she collaborated with the choreographer Yalda Younes on a performance, titled Ana Fintizarak after a famous Umm Kulthoum song, which was featured in the prestigious Avignon Festival in France. Hamdan also served as a musical consultant on the latest film by Elia Suleiman, The Time That Remains, which premièred in Cannes and is scheduled for worldwide release on August 12.
When asked about her ideal audience, Hamdan admits that she doesn’t really know who her audience will be. Certainly, she is not after the kind of Arabic pop superstardom of Amr Diab, Haifa Wehbe or Nancy Ajram. She is not part of the economic machine that churns out pop singers like the late Suzanne Tamim, who achieved notoriety after her murder in Dubai last year.
When asked about her, Hamdan didn’t know who she was, which is not at all surprising, given that the dramatic differences in their respective upbringings and social milieus.
One thing is for sure, though. Hamdan wants to reach far beyond the Soap Kills crowd. “I think you need courage to do alternative music in Beirut. You need courage anywhere but here is specifically difficult and it’s alienating sometimes and it’s also very small.” Soap Kills succeeded by selling a tiny number of albums. Hamdan, at this point, wants more, and for that reason, among others, she plans to continue collaborating with Mirwais.
“He is one of the biggest producers and he is extremely well connected. He has the credibility, but to do something big, you really need to have a lot of financing and a big strategy. We are searching for it. You can print that! He really has in mind to do something big, in Arabic, something that is modern, edgy and attractive, as a positive sign coming out of the Arab world.”
Global Arab Network
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, Copyright The National, this article first appeared in The National on (August 08. 2009).