Arabic Music's Modern Voice
By TARA MULHOLLAND
PARIS — It was a familiar Paris hipster scene. The crowd behind the discrete façade of the Tigre club in the First Arrondissement were in skinny jeans with carefully tousled hair and clutching expensive drinks. Marc Collin, co-founder of the cult electropop collective Nouvelle Vague was setting up vintage keyboards on a tiny stage. The female drummer picked up her drumsticks and the skinny-cool guitarist settled into place. Then the singer, in jeans and a black vest, looking out from behind long dark hair, took the mic and began to sing.
In preparation for the release of her new, self-named album, the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan was doing a small gig in Paris, and as the crowd swayed to the music, their eyes fixed on the stage, it didn’t seem to matter if only 10 percent of the people there understood the words she was singing.
As with her past work — which includes the groundbreaking underground Beirut duo Soapkills, an album with the legendary Paris musician Mirwais, who produced Madonna’s album “Music,” and a collaboration with the alternative American rock group CocoRosie — Ms. Hamdan is looking again to bring Arabic singing out of the field of world music and into the musical mainstream.
“I love Arabic culture, and I hate how the Arab world is portrayed in the press today,” she said in an interview after a rehearsal last month in a cafe in the 10th Arrondissement. “I sing in Arabic as a statement. It’s art and it’s a challenge.”
Born in Beirut in 1976 and with a childhood moving between Lebanon, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Greece, Ms. Hamdan first found success in Beirut in 1998 playing in partnership with Zeid Hamdan (no relation) as the duo Soapkills. Part of the generation growing up after the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, they named their duo after the idea that the city’s troubled history was being glided over too quickly.
“All the war being wiped clean, we thought, wow, it’s shiny and it’s awful and it’s soap kills,” Mr. Hamdan said in an interview with the local Daily Star. “We thought it would be a nice name for a band.”
A mainstay of the underground scene, the band mixed ragged electro beats with Ms. Hamdan’s husky deadpan vocals, which, from early on, were sung in Arabic.
“At the start I sang in English, but quickly I found myself asking why,” she said. “I felt intuitively that there was a gap to fill and also that it gave me a freedom — singing in Arabic but in my own way.”
At first she was rejected by radio stations in Lebanon. “It was seen as not cool. Either you sang traditional Arabic folk music or you sang rock in English,” she explained.
But the band quickly began to achieve cult status in the city. Major European and Arabic labels and producers approached Ms. Hamdan, offering contracts and mainstream success — if she would sing in English. She refused.
“This way of singing was a way of addressing the problems I had with having a sense of not belonging,” she said. “I was lost as a teenager. I had to reconstitute my memories. We moved around so much. Arabic music created my reference points, it’s thanks to that that I know where I am from.”
In 2002 she moved to Paris, where she continued making music with Soapkills, did a degree in performing arts and met the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, who is now her husband. She started writing music for his films and through him met the producer Mirwais in 2005. Intrigued by her work, he agreed to collaborate on the album “Arabology,” produced by Universal, which came out in 2009 to critical and popular acclaim.
Despite one of the album’s songs being picked out as a title track for a French television news program, the music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, normally allergic to anything that smacks of mainstream, picked “Arabology” as one of its albums of the summer.
“You quickly forget that it is a popular hit,” the magazine wrote, “and simply celebrate this mix of electro and Arabic, an exercise in style that avoids the pitfalls of dodgy world music.”
But, for Ms. Hamdan, who had grown up creating music from a more grass-roots perspective, the experience of working with a major producer and label was one that she was happy to move on from.
“When I worked with Mirwais, it brought me out of the local scene,” she said. “It taught me how to mix Arabic with electro, it really pushed me to work with words. But Mirwais was the musical leader of the project, so it was a varied experience.”
After the publicity and touring linked to “Arabology” died down, she took time off to write more songs, dig through her archive of Arabic music stretching from the 1930s to the ’60s, and travel to the United States, where she worked with members of CocoRosie recording the song “The Moon Asked the Crow,” which has become a YouTube hit. Last September she started work on a new album in collaboration with Mr. Collin.
“I learned a lot working with Mirwais, and with Marc, I knew more what I wanted to produce, he is very relaxed,” she said. “With this new album, I wanted to go back to something calmer, more about the voice, mixing different Arabic dialects. The electro side comes from Marc.”
Roughly half of the songs in the album were composed and written by Ms. Hamdan, while the others are “freely inspired” from old Arabic songs.
“Beirut,” for example, is based on a Lebanese song from the 1940s. “My great aunt sang it to me all the time,” Ms. Hamdan said. While the original has a cabaret-style vibe, Ms. Hamdan’s version is melancholic and almost folky, set to a 12-string guitar melody by the guitarist Kevin Sedikki.
“I sing ‘Beirut’ for what the city is for me, but I am also singing as an exile,” she said. “It’s an impossible love.”
Ms. Hamdan has set two challenges for herself in her music. She is looking to pull Arabic-language music out of any politicized “world music” or kitschy, synthetically-made pop categories and into the hip music sphere. At the same time, by reworking old Arabic songs, she wants to keep music from the Arabic “golden age” of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s alive.
“There was no archiving at the time of old Arabic songs, they were hard to find,” she said. “When I started to collect old music, I had to search out underground dealers. Not everything was easy to find in Lebanon, so sometimes I would go to Syria to find more music.”
Ms. Hamdan mixes different dialects and forms of Arabic in her singing, inspired by performers who include the Lebanese-Syrian singer Asmahan, and the Egyptian singers Nagat El Saghira, Oum Kalthoum and Sayed Darwish. In her latest album, for example, “Beirut” is sung in a Lebanese dialect, “Baaden” is Egyptian and Palestinian, “Irss” is Kuwaiti, “In Kan Fouadi” is Egyptian and “Samar” is Bedouin.
“When the public doesn’t understand me, it’s a battle,” she said. “So when I choose words, I choose them for their musicality, rhythm and sense, and I choose the right dialect to express that.”
Asked whether she had been inspired by the youth movement behind the Arab Spring, she was circumspect.
“We have had neither enough distance nor enough time to work out what it means,” she said. “I was very happy when it happened, I was angry with the authorities in the region and I felt less alone in that. But I don’t think it is finished. Time will make things happen, it can’t just be revolution, change also needs time.”
In the meantime, her immediate plans include the release of “Yasmine Hamdan” in France on April 23 on Mr. Collin’s label, Kwaidan, followed by a release in the Middle East over the summer and tour dates beginning with a gig at Comedy Club in Paris on May 7. In addition, the song “Herzan” by Soapkills has been topping the playlist of Radio Nova, one of the most influential French mainstream radio stations, since last autumn. In addition, Zeid Hamdan, Ms. Hamdan’s former partner in the duo, had a four-page article dedicated to his new work as a music producer in Les Inrockuptibles this month. For Ms. Hamdan, however, the battle to be accepted is not yet won.
“It’s complicated for my music to be accepted, even in Lebanon and the Arabic world — I sing in Arabic, but there’s no lute, no classical instruments,” she said. “Maybe with the Internet opening things up, things will change.”
“I’m inspired by the Cocteau Twins,” she added hopefully, referring to the alternative Scottish rock band, whose lyrics were purposefully indecipherable. “No one questioned what or why they were singing.”
This article was originally publsihed in The New York Times (all rights reserved) at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/arts/13iht-hamdan13.html?pagewanted=all