- Among Hamdan’s influences are Asmahan, a Syrian singer killed in 1944 while allegedly working for British Intelligence; Leila Mourad, a Jew who became the official voice of the Egyptian revolution before being denounced – falsely – as a Zionist; and Mounira El Mahdeya, the first Muslim woman to act on-stage in Egypt.
- Later this year she’ll be seen in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive (nothing to do with the Stones’ aborted movie).
- Ya Nass is an updated version of her self-titled French debut from last year, recorded with Nouvelle Vague’s Marc Collin, with five new songs.
IF ONE THING UNITES most musical innovators, it’s their outsiderdom: there will always be a place at the table for them if they don’t fit in anywhere else. “I had an Arabic background,” says Yasmine Hamdan, one-time queen of the Lebanese underground, “but I lived a very scattered childhood. I didn’t belong to any one culture, which meant
I didn’t have musical geographies in my head.”
Talking on the eve of the release of her first international album, Ya Nass, she reels off a list of singers who inspired her, not just with their talent but also through their lives lived on the margins. “The Arabic world was very interesting in the 1920s to ’60s, there was something booming culturally and I found my culture very desirable when I listened to these songs. I don’t know if I desire it very much today, but I desire it very much yesterday.”
In the late 1990s, as Beirut returned to normal after 15 years of war, she started singing in Soapkills, a duo who applied electronic beats to Arabic. “I was into Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, but I started singing in Arabic, even though I didn’t know how. It’s very sophisticated, very complex and something you have to be initiated into, but this was a special time in Lebanon. Lots of things were starting and we had no structures, so everything we did was new.”
“The Arabic music I listen to is extremely edgy. Ironic, sarcastic, sensual, erotic…”
Hamdan was so obsessed with learning to sing in Arabic she would hunt out forgotten records and listen to the same song 50 times a day for six months. At the time, most musicians in the Middle East looked either to Egypt and traditional singers such as Oum Kalthoum or to Europe and America for rock; somewhere in the middle, Soapkills were deemed too subversive for Arabic radio, while their deconstructions of old music would not get played by rock radio.
Hamdan eventually left for France, only to immerse herself in old songs. As Y.A.S., with Madonna collaborator Mirwais she made Arabology, an album of “Arabic avant-garde” that appeared in 2009, but its major-label success proved a turn-off. “That experience brought me to this album. I wanted to go back to my room and something intimate, folky, where I would be driving the project. So this time I didn’t care about singles or formatting or radio. It was very liberating.”
“Liberating?” Faced with a western media that concentrates on radical and conservative Islam, she is quick to point out how blinkered that view is when talking music: “There is conservatism in the region, but I’m free in the way I act and dress or my lyrics. The Arabic music I listen to is extremely edgy. Ironic, sarcastic, sensual, erotic… it’s there. Everything is in Arabic music.”