Yasmine Hamdan: The Daring Diva Who Turns Umm Kulthum Into Electro

This innovative Lebanese-French artist takes traditional Arab music on a journey of discovery and change, offering a fresh take on social and political issues, including feminist ones

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Lebanese-French singer Yasmine Hamdan
Lebanese-French singer Yasmine HamdanCredit: Tania Feghali
Rajaa Natour

Mid-April, 2008. A thrilling night in Bethlehem. My friends and I, all from Jaffa, and many others, eagerly awaited this day. This is the day Yasmine Hamdan is performing somewhere that's close enough for us to see her live. To get there on time, to avoid any delays or surprises of any kind, we set out three hours before the show. To dispel the tension we wandered aimlessly around the marketplace, gobbled up falafel and then, like jolly foreign tourists, followed that up with kanafeh.

After a brief wait, the big moment arrived. A tall, slim and beautiful woman took the stage. She had the air of a Lebanese-French diva combined with that of a bad girl rock star. Not showing too much excitement, yet not too aloof either – perhaps even a little timid. The first thing she did was speak to the audience and welcome everyone, in endearing Lebanese Arabic. Hamdan knows how to talk to an audience. Then she began to move sensuously and slowly, wrapped in a red scarf, and started to sing. Instantly, she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand, with her wild charm.

That evening, Hamdan performed most of the most popular songs from all of her albums, including “Beirut” and “Azza.” The largely Palestinian audience swayed and danced and shouted with a gleeful abandon, which made for a somewhat jarring contrast with the serious setting of the concert – Qal’at Murad (Murad’s Castle), Bethlehem’s Palestinian Heritage Center.

Hamdan, who lives in France and is currently on a world tour promoting her new album – is a cultural icon in the Arab world and one of its most prominent alternative musicians. She draws inspiration from Umm Kulthum to create electronic music, dares to set the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish to rock music and performs all over the world – in Dubai, Tunisia, Morocco, Germany, England, France, Russia, Japan, America. She sings in Arabic, English and French. Her audience is broad and varied and her fans come from practically everywhere. The theme song for Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 film “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which she wrote and performed, was nominated in 2015 for the Oscar for Best Original Song.

Hamdan was born in Lebanon in 1976, at the height of the brutal civil war there. Because of the war, her family fled the country and moved to France. They subsequently moved to the United Arab Emirates, then to Greece and finally to Kuwait.

In 1990, with the outbreak of the Gulf War, the family returned to Lebanon. This sojourn exposed Hamdan to different cultural, musical and linguistic landscapes, which she would later weave into her world-embracing art. At the same time – as she has said in interviews and as is evident from listening to her music – she was raised on classic Arabic singers like Umm Kulthum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Asmahan.

Hamdan’s original plan was to study psychology at Beirut University. Around that time, however, she met musician Zeid Hamdan (no relation) and began learning guitar and writing poetry. She enrolled in Ma’ahad al-Musiqa, a prestigious music academy. She left there soon afterward, she said years later, because the atmosphere was too academic and stuffy.

Yasmine Hamdan. Sets the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish to rock music and performs all over the world. Credit: Flavien Prioreau

In one interview, she recalled: “I missed home, but I didn’t know which home. One day I was at a nightclub in Beirut and the DJ played Asmahan’s song 'Ya Habibi Ta’ala' (Come, My Love). The next day I went looking for someone who sold Arabic music cassettes.”

The return to Lebanon had been, for her, a return to the beating heart of Arab culture. And yet, as Hamdan admitted in another interview: “Music helped me invent a new life, the kind I knew I wouldn’t find in Lebanon.”

In 1997, she and Zeid Hamdan formed Soapkills (Al-Sabun Yaqtul), the first indie-pop group in the Arab world. The band, with its innovative sound, combining lyrics in Arabic and English and Arab music with electronic music, simultaneously rejected the old-fashioned form of classical Arab music while infusing it – musically, rhythmically and lyrically – with a new electro-Arabic sound and feel.

Soapkills quickly became a hit on the fringe music scene that was blossoming in Beirut after the war, and its music was played nonstop on Lebanese radio. The group performed elsewhere in the Arab world, as well as in Europe, but it broke up in 2005 and Yasmine Hamdan moved to France. There she collaborated with the CocoRosie duo and with producer Marc Collin (Nouvelle Vague).

Slaughtering a sacred cow

In the 1990s and early 2000s, electronic music wasn’t particularly well-received by the Arab audience, whose tastes were still quite conventional. Nor was this audience ready to hear an electro version of Umm Kulthum – that was like slaughtering a sacred cow. But in time, precisely because Hamdan didn’t dismiss Arab music but instead took it with her on a journey of discovery and change, her standing solidified. She made a name for herself as a serious artist with a real musical backbone, and both the Arab and foreign press took note and covered her performances.

Lebanese-French singer Yasmine HamdanCredit: Tania Feghali

Hamdan’s work is both musically and lyrically bold. Some songs address social issues like the cost of living, or the silencing and exclusion of the ordinary citizen. But even with this revolutionary streak, she is a very careful, deliberate and selective artist, and is closely involved in every aspect of her work: She writes much of the lyrics, and also composes and produces.

Of the 25 albums she has released since 2005, two especially stand out: "Ya Nass," from 2012 and "Al Jamilat" (The Beautiful Ones), from 2017. The latter is a particularly eclectic album with songs in tribal, Bedouin, Egyptian and Lebanese dialects. It moves freely and naturally between musical adaptations of texts in high literary Arabic, such as a poem by Omar Khayyam, and adaptations of texts and classic works in spoken Egyptian Arabic, such as Mohammed Abdel Wahab’s “La Mouch (Laa Mech Ana Elli Abki)” (Not That I’ll Cry).

There’s also Hamdan’s original song “Beirut,” from "Ya Nass": “Beirut / Arak drinking / Card playing / Racehorse cheering / Pigeon hunting /The essence of Beirut… Seduction crowd / Cruising around / Fooling about… Beirut / A flower off its terrain / Beirut / Oh her beauty, her good old days / Beirut / That dire end, all a waste / Withering…”

The album has precise, deep rhythms with a strong presence of electric guitar, and Hamdan’s voice is particularly dramatic. The music both corresponds and clashes with the artist’s voice, which is sometimes romantic, warm and effusive, while at other times cynical and sharp.

In “Al Jamilat,” Hamdan doesn’t do anything particularly new musically, but the beats and riffs are spot on and the assimilation of electronic music with Arabic chords is marvelous. She also comes across as even more sophisticated and sure of herself as she lingers over and imbues every word with meaning. She combines her electro-rock with lyrics sung in a very intelligent way, without subscribing to any one specific genre.

In her 2017 album, Hamdan puts to music one of the most beautiful and also most controversial feminist poems of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. It is the title track, "Al Jamilat":

Beauties are beautiful

"The tattoos of the 'violin' around the waist"

The beauties are vulnerable

"A throne without memory."

The beauties are the strong ones

"A desperation that shines but does not burn"

The beauties are princesses

"Mistresses of an anxious revelation."

The beauties are the relatives

"A rainbow neighbors"

The beauties are the distant ones

"Like songs of joys."

The beauties are the poor ones

"Such as roses in the battlefield"

The beauties are the lonely ones

"Such as the slaves serving the Queen."

The beauties are the tall ones

"The aunts of a palm tree touching the sky"

The beauties are the short ones

"Drank a cup of water."

The beauties are the older woman

"Mango peeled and wine mellowed":

The beauties are the young ones

"The promise of a future and the buds of a lily."

Beautiful, all beautiful, you.

If they came together to choose for me the noblest killer.

Hamdan sings Darwish’s words with the accompaniment of electric guitar, drums and synthesizer. Unlike the Joubran Trio, the famous Palestinian oud players who sang and played Darwish with typical Arab chords and harmony, and thus kept him in familiar romantic realms – she takes the famous poet's texts to a whole new musical place.

In an interview with the online Arabic music magazine Ma'azaf, Hamdan said: “This is not a feminist album, which includes strong and weak women, dominant and heroic ones – there’s a whole range of women there. However, the album takes a fresh look at things, complimenting women.”

Even though Hamdan's work touches upon social and political issues, including feminist ones, she avoids talking about politics to the media; she’s careful about choosing her words within the complex Arab-Lebanese mosaic, which is such a complicated and violent realm. In that same interview, she said: “All my life I’ve fought alone – I had to, that was the only way I could win, on my own. Women are a minority just like gay communities around the world. Some of those doing the fighting are human rights activists. Today I feel I’m part of that community of activists, only I am doing things through my music, in a clearer manner.”

Hamdan relates to Beirut with pain: On one hand she has expressed pining and longing, while on the other, she described it as a ghost city, full of fear, in which Christians, Maronites, Shi’ites and Muslims live a lie that is called a communal and multicultural life. In fact, she said, everyone is defeated, silent and broken.

For her part, Hamdan has continued to work in many realms. In addition to the song she wrote for Jarmusch’s 2013 film, she’s written songs for movies such as the “A Perfect Day” (2005); “What a Wonderful World (2007)”; “In Between,” directed by Maysaloun Hamoud (2016); and a few other movies by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, to whom she is married.

Jarmusch has said that Hamdan is a gift to the world – comparing her to the biblical Eve. It’s easy to agree with him. Hamdan is a chameleon artist who changes her shape, her look and her voice every time anew. She is unpredictable, as one easily sees during her performances on stage, where she dances barefoot, in constant motion, with her body following her voice, making waves in the air until it breaks.

Lebanese-French singer Yasmine HamdanCredit: Tania Feghali

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