"I Am a Nomad"

Yasmine Hamdan is a rising star on the alternative electro-pop scene in Lebanon. In her solo debut album "Ya Nass", she has given classical Arabic music a modern twist. An interview by Juliane Metzker

By Juliane Metzker

Ms. Hamdan, your single "Beirut" talks about "the good old days" of the Lebanese capital. Do you like to travel back in time?

Yasmine Hamdan: I was already a big fan of the original singer and writer of the song, Omar al-Zenni. His music is rare material and difficult to obtain. On one of his albums I found the song "Beirut". I research a lot of old music that I can use and re-arrange. Omar's version was much faster than my piece but I felt right away that I could edit this song. It was written with so much tenderness and lightness, yet it holds also a lot of criticism. And it talks about a mentality that has been returning to the city for 60, 70 years. So the idea of me singing "Beirut" nowadays makes it as topical as it used be back then.

Yasmine Hamdan (photo: Amélie Rouyer)
Yasmine Hamdan sings a tribute to her hometown: "Beirut – a flower of its terrain, oh her beauty, her good old days and that dire end"

During the civil war in Lebanon your family lived in Abu Dhabi, Greece, Kuwait and Beirut. You are singing songs in Egyptian, Lebanese and also Bedouin dialect, and you used to produce songs in English and French. Is it difficult for you to feel at home anywhere?

Hamdan: I am a nomad. I had a scattered childhood then. I was not aware that such a thing as home existed. The good part about this is that you can keep your distance to things. You can maintain a critical eye and have a broader vision of things. The down side of it is that you face a lot of solitude. But you can transform this feeling of solitude into something new. And with music I learned to work on this foundation. Today I belong to the places I choose.

Recently you joined the crew of the new vampire movie "Only Lovers Left Alive" by Jim Jarmusch. In his movie you appear as a bar singer and you are introduced with the words: "This is Yasmine and she will be famous soon." How do make your music accessible for non-Arabic speakers?

Hamdan: I don't think music that is based on geographical borders is something that needs to be understood. It needs to be felt. The fact that you are Arab doesn't mean you feel the music more than somebody who does not understand Arabic. Jim Jarmusch also saw my performance. And he didn't need to understand what I was singing to feel that there is something he wants to work with.

Your song "Ya Nass" (Eng.: Hey, people!) is also the title of your latest album. Who are you calling out to?

Hamdan: I didn't write the song for any specific group of people. "Ya Nass" is an adaptation of a really old and poetic song from Kuwait. Some of the words in the lyrics no longer exist in today's language. The song is about a woman waiting at the port for her beloved to return by boat. She is asking people about him and she is remembering the time they spent together. Before oil was discovered, Kuwait and the entire Gulf used to be just desert, the people lived from fishing. As a young girl I used to listen to this song when it was shown on TV. When I rediscovered it one day, it brought back memories of the smell of the sea and the desert. 

The title is quite pertinent, in view of the ongoing protest movements in the Arab world, would you agree?

Hamdan: Not directly.  I love the title "Ya Nass" because it is addressing, it is calling, it is opening a conversation, and it is like a proposition. It is about communication and maybe this is what people understand from the title.

You explained on stage that the song "Samar" refers to a certain type of Arabic woman and her sexuality. Who meets whom in this song?

Hamdan: When I was growing up, the actresses in the Egyptian movies I saw were very provocative and beautiful. The famous singer and actress Samira Toufiq played the role of a Bedouin woman. Men of my grandfather’s generation were deeply in love with her. She had huge breasts, feminine curves and seemed to be sensuous, but also shy. When I wrote "Samar" I was imagining her character.

Album artwork (photo: Crammed Discs)
The title of Yasmine Hamdan's album is an invitation to dialogue: "Ya Nass" means, loosely translated 'Hey, guys.' "I love the title because it is addressing, it is calling, it is opening a conversation, and it is like a proposition," states Yasmine Hamdan

The lyrics are repeating themselves. It is like an obsession. A woman is obsessed by something that reminds her of her lover, or by the last passionate night, and keeps on repeating the same words over and over again. The song is in Bedouin dialect and it blends shyness, eroticism, sensuality, and firmness. It implies things rather than state them directly. 

You and your colleague Zeid Hamdan founded the band "Soapkills" in post-war Beirut. Your experimental approach combined trip-hop with Arabic sounds. Did the project have a message?

Hamdan: At that particular time, the name "Soapkills" referred to how Beirut and the entire country were being cleaned up and all traces of the turbulences washed away. People wanted to erase everything in haste. We never had just one message. At the end of the 90s, the post-war generation faced a very particular situation, in a country that was largely in ruins. We were burdened by many unanswered questions. So when I started singing, for me it was a space where I could hide and escape reality. We began making music for the future. We felt like strangers in our own country at the time.

Why did you decide to leave Beirut?

Hamdan: I need to live in a stable country and in a secure environment. I have a lot of contradictory feelings towards Lebanon. On the one hand, I love the country. On the other hand, it’s currently functioning in a very unhealthy and toxic way.  I hope that one day, the sectarianism will vanish. The people there have to face conflicts, war and corruption every day. I am always worrying about Lebanon.

Juliane Metzker

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Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de