Yasmine Hamdan is petite in real life, smaller than she appears on stage, where she has a transfixing quality, and an undeniably powerful presence, with that typical 'Arab beauty' look you hear about; massive, haunting eyes rimmed with kohl and perfect jealousy-inducing, waves of dark hair. She commands a crowd seamlessly, and standing in front of crowds of hundreds upon hundreds is never a daunting task for the Lebanese musician. "Why would it be scary? I'm not scared by this habebti. I'm the post-war generation – nothing scares me!" she says with a laugh. And she is pretty damn fearless. The musical darling has been breaking barriers and following her own, uniquely winding path for years; from the inception of her first band, Soapkills, in 1999, one of the first Electronic bands in the Middle East; to her Arabology album under the Y.A.S moniker; her 2014 album Ya Nass, creatively amalgamating Arabic dialects with electronic sounds, Pop and Folk touches, and husky vocals, for a brooding, eclectic sound; and finally, her 2017 album Al Jamilat
Along the way, the songstress pretty much solidified her spot as something of a musical wonderchild of a pioneer. "I do think that I get excited in trying things out and experimenting and also I…" she pauses, trying to articulate the point she's trying to get across. "When you're an artist, you don’t have the distance, you don’t consider yourself, it's not a plan. You don’t put yourself in a format or you don’t define yourself and your work. So I guess what I do is follow my desires and I follow where my heart takes me." It's almost as though the new sound she eventually created was an unconscious, natural progression for her. "When I started singing, for example, with Soapkills, I did feel like this was something that needed to be done, this is a door that needs to be opened. And this is something that I felt I could do."
As an Arab woman, there are so many taboos and so many, you know, formats and checkpoints, and borders, and this doesn’t work with me.
And unlike many Arab women, she's not one for conformity. "There are so many taboos and so many, you know, formats and checkpoints, and borders, and this doesn’t work with me." Fuelled by a singular drive, she's excited by what she hesitantly calls, the "irregular." "Yeah, irregular is nice," she says contemplatively. "Going to irregular places, doing irregular things. I like that. It's challenging for me, it's exciting, and it makes you process a lot of things and it connects you with a lot of things; with yourself in a different way, with your limitations, with your possibilities, with how you can broaden and enlarge your life, your world. Somehow it's very thrilling." About the word pioneer being used to describe her, she looks a bit surprised. "If people think I'm a pioneer then it's great," and about her fearless musical ass-kicking, she says, "you're opening doors, you're breaking down walls, it's like…what do you call it? Not militia…" she snaps her fingers trying to pull the words out of thin air, speaking in that smooth Lebanese Arabic all Egyptian are jealous of. Guerilla? "Yes! It's like being an artistic guerilla!" she says with a wink. "It's all about inventing and improving and being creative and being curious and being open, and remaining free," she explains.
Singing in English is not my thing. This is their life, their culture. My culture is Arabic. Where my heart goes, what my heart chooses, is Arabic.
As she speaks, she uses arm gestures liberally, as most Arabs tend to do. And she is Arab through and through, insisting at the start of her career to sing in her own language despite numerous record deal offers that required her to sing in English. "I think [the reason I chose to do this] seems obvious today," she says. Considering her massive success, in large part due to the 'irregular' path she chose, which included singing in Arabic, yes, we would think it seems pretty obvious now. "But it didn’t seem obvious at the time," she says, "It wasn’t a trend." But amongst a barrage of girls singing in English, she says, "It's not my thing. This is their life, their culture. My culture is Arabic. Where my heart goes, what my heart chooses, is Arabic." She says this all with a sincerity, and a kind of love that unfortunately, Arabs rarely show for their own countries. Despite the fact that she had a nomadic childhood, raised in a variety of countries from Kuwait to Greece, due to the situation in her home country of Lebanon, or perhaps because of her scattered upbringing, she veered towards Arabic music. "Arabic music gave me a lot of answers about who I was. I was a little bit lost, in my identity, as a child or teenager, having lived abroad in many places. I needed to have like, confirmation and I needed to find where I came from, and music – Arabic music – gave me some answers."
Arabic music gave me a lot of answers about who I was. I was a little bit lost, in my identity, as a child or teenager, having lived abroad in many places. I needed to have like, confirmation and I needed to find where I came from, and music – Arabic music – gave me some answers.
Even though Hamdan admits to being massively influenced by artists from the Western world, they'll never rival her undying love for some of Arabic music's greats. "These guys like Asmahan, and Abdel Wahab are like my family. And I do believe in this kind of magical, you know, connection between space and time. I know that Asamahan showed me the way, I know. She's like a spirit, but for me she's real. Or Abdel Wahab – I'm convinced that he wrote some songs for me!" she says with wide-eyed conviction but a laugh that says she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
These guys like Asmahan, and Abdel Wahab are like my family. And I do believe in this kind of magical, you know, connection between space and time.
She leans in conspiratorially, "I'll tell you a funny story, because I think I'm a witch – sometimes!" A few years ago, in Cairo for a film festival, she was at a bar, and after a few drinks, a girl with her asked where she wanted to go in Cairo. Hamdan replied instantly that she'd really like to visit Abdel Wahab's grave, to which the girl said it would be practically impossible. "Three minutes later, Abdel Wahab's doppelganger walks through the door!" she almost shouts. Turns out, the photocopy of her hero was his son. "He [Abdel Wahab] just sent me a sign," Hamdan says simply. She then proceeds to gush her praise for the singer, who is a massive influence on her music. "I'm in love with this guy; he's done so many things for Arabic music. When he started mixing between different sounds and different rhythms he was one of the first. He was a free artist, he was my hero!"
But essentially it was these music greats, the people our grandparents worship - "I do listen to grandmothers' music, this is completely my style!" - that she freely admits made her fall in love with Arabic music. "I am very proud to be Arabic," she says. But "I also always, always kept the freedom to pick what I like and what I desire in Arabic culture and to just throw away what I don’t."
Part in parcel of the Arab culture comes a heightened difficulty in pursuing a career in the arts, parents often balking with immense disapproval at the idea of their children following any kind of artistic path. "Well nobody supported me," she says instantly. "My father did not show any resistance, but he was very unhappy about it; my mother was completely freaking out!" In a conservative family, Hamdan was the first to break the mould and insist on doing her own thing despite protestations. "I'm very stubborn. This is a quality…sometimes! But I did not have the choice, really. When I started making music, it kind of saved my life." But she understands her parent's hesitation to embrace her chosen career path, saying that "Even in Europe people get scared because it’s a scary job, it’s a scary career, it’s a scary choice. And I know now, with what I've been through, I know how many sacrifices you have to make and how difficult it is, and sometimes how unfair and cruel – and sometimes extremely lucky – you can be. You have to be resistant."
Music is a scary job, it’s a scary career, it’s a scary choice. And I know now, with what I've been through, I know how many sacrifices you have to make and how difficult it is, and sometimes how unfair and cruel – and sometimes extremely lucky – you can be. You have to be resistant."
And Hamdan is a study in resistance, insisting on forging her own path from very beginning of her career up until her latest album. She likens the process of creation to a sort of musical treasure hunt, where there are clues littered throughout vast terrain and you wander through the sounds to collect them all to reach the final prize; a perfectly completed song. "It's like playing games you know…you have indications to go from a place to another …you try something and then you go back and try something else. And something happens and you think, ok, this is a sign. And I do work with signs, I believe in signs." Detail oriented and obsessive almost to a fault, her creative process isn’t always fun and games. "Sometimes you just become haunted," she says. And it is precisely this haunted emotion that comes through in her voice and music, which has a brooding, melancholic sound, and ultimately, transfixing quality.
Photography by MO4 Network.
Photographed by Jonathan Zikry and Muhammed Magdy.
*This article was originally published on our sister site Scene Noise.