Yasmine Hamdan – Al Jamilat (‘the beautiful ones’)
With her debut solo album Ya Nass (2013), Yasmine Hamdan introduced her personal, modern take on Arabic pop.
In Al Jamilat (‘The Beautiful Ones’), she pursues her musical exploration, while taking a look at the mutations at work within the Arab world. While Yasmine’s vocals are definitely connected to traditions of Arabic music (to which she takes an unconventional and fresh approach), the structures and arrangements of the songs are very remote from its codes, and take in elements from contemporary Western electronic, pop and folk music.
Her unique vision is fully realised in this new album, which she jointly produced with UK producers Luke Smith (Foals, Depeche Mode, Lily Allen) and Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Carl Barât), and recorded with contributions from NY musicians Shahzad Ismaily (Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, John Zorn, Marc Ribot) and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley.
Yasmine is a wanderer, she’s lived in half a dozen countries and has been immersed in as many cultures. The making of this album couldn’t therefore be anything else but a voyage, during which she collected and merged sounds & ideas, interacting along the way with a variety of people, nurturing her reflections and enriching the sociopolitical awareness which always runs through her lyrics.
The release of the Ya Nass album has been getting tremendous attention in Europe and America, as well as in North Africa and the Middle East (where Yasmine Hamdan has enjoyed iconic stature since the days of Soapkills, the duet she had founded in her native Beirut, which was one of the first indie/electronic bands in the Middle East).
She’s performed prestigious shows on four continents (including a series of concerts for the launch of the Jim Jarmusch movie “Only Lovers Left Alive”, in which she’s featured singing, onscreen, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes). Let’s hear what Yasmine tells us about the recording of her new album:
Yasmine Hamdan on Al Jamilat
For this album, I decided to take the lead. I went to NY with 11 demos/sketches that I had finalised in trains, planes, hotel rooms etc, while on the road touring for the Ya Nass album. I recorded for five days at Sonic Youth’s studio in Hoboken. My friend Steve Shelley (who also performs drums on this record) helped me to organise those sessions. Almost none of the musicians had heard the demos before, so they came to the studio with fresh ears.
Shahzad Ismaily, whom Steve had brought in, is a great multi-instrumentalist, he recorded many of the parts on this record. I had written & programmed several violin sections and had them performed by Canadian, NY-based violin player Magali Charron. My musician friend Cesar Urbina, programmed a stumbling, Kuwaiti desert groove that I wanted to reproduce in one track (now entitled Ta3ala). I did some more recordings in Paris with fellow musicians, and in Beirut, with Zeid Hamdan (my ex- bandmate in Soapkills). I had tons of material to edit so from there, I started restructuring the songs.
The album was finalised in London by British producers Luke Smith and Leo Abraham. They completed the production, recorded some more instruments, re-shaped the sound and mixed the album in its final form.
I try to do records with a great number of moods. The songs on this record matured in an organic way throughout the process. There are many ideas that came together in the editing phase because the context allowed it. The journey had to be nomadic, uprooted, a bit like my life. It had to be planned somewhat hazardously, allowing coincidences to happen. That versatile context had a major influence on the sound.
When I am composing, I want to explore different possibilities of textures and grooves together, regardless of where they come from or what they refer to, regardless of codes and formats. I am interested in exploring encounters where worlds meet, beyond musical genres or musical worlds. I like to find this place where the mix becomes intuitive, and where the encounter with Arabic music becomes effortless. It fits me, because I belong to different places, I’ve lived different cultures and I have learned to appropriate and create from a hybridized point of view. I actually see that as a creative asset, something rather liberating. I think being plural and having mixed identities is a state in which many people find themselves today.
The recording process involved a selection of Middle Eastern and Asian instruments, Gulf/Iraqi grooves, Tuareg-like guitars, peculiar buzuk sounds, along with more usual guitars riffs, drums, and modern pop synths and beats. Rhythmic loops were created from live drums, or vintage/sample loops and sometimes from organic sounds that carry a flavour of ethnic sounding percussion. Violins and harmonium bring colours to some songs, sometimes with shades of Indian, Asian and desert melodies.
The album was made in a context of movement, travel, being on the road. There is a social and political dimension underlining most of the songs, a.o. in the feminine characters/psychologies I create. The starting point for some of my lyrics comes from people I engaged with. Such as, for example, taxi drivers in Beirut, who are outspoken, very political, and have interesting insights about all realms of society. Many have reached a boiling point, caused by a rotten political and economical system. I have met unusual characters, ex-criminals, perverts, war fighters, gigolos, poets, drug addicts. Interacting with all these people was a real inspiration. Their anger echoes a sense of hopelessness, and the mixed feelings I have regarding the ongoing turmoil in Lebanon and the region.
All songs are original but one, the Mahmoud Darwish poem, Al Jamilat (which gave its title to the album) for which I wrote the music and melody. As for my own lyrics, my top ten list of topics are relationships, manipulation, self-reflection, self-mocking, deception, lust, sin, fear, love and rebellion.
The song Al Jamilat encapsulates the overall spirit of the album. Darwish’s poem is an ode to womanhood, celebrating beauty in multiplicity and contradictions. I like to imagine female characters in my songs as being ambivalent and dominant. They often use humour, sarcasm, or devotion as powerful means of seduction. They’re bold, with restraint, which is what underlines their strength.
I see those feminine characters as skillful witnesses, non-conventional and non-perfect figures of change, redemption and awakening. They do not serve their home, fatherland, or religion: They express themselves in some mode of life that is personal, emancipated and free.
More on Yasmine Hamdan
Hailed as ‘Arabic music’s modern voice’ (New York Times), Lebanese singer- songwriter Yasmine Hamdan first emerged onto the music scene with Soapkills, the pioneering indie electronic band she founded along with Zeid Hamdan in Beirut in the late ’90s. The band gradually acquired an emblematic status and, to this day, Yasmine is considered an underground icon throughout the Arab world.
Later moving to Paris, Yasmine teamed up with Madonna’s producer Mirwais, and under the Y.A.S. moniker, recorded the album Arabology, released in 2009 by Universal France. In 2012, Yasmine joined forces with Nouvelle Vague’s Marc Collin to produce her debut solo album, Ya Nass, released by Crammed Discs in Europe in 2013 and in Japan and the USA in early 2014. One of the album’s tracks, ‘Hal’ was featured in Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive and was a contender for the 2014 Oscar Award for Best Original Song.
‘Ya Nass’ has received wide critical acclaim across Europe, North America and the Arab region, with major media outlets including CNN, BBC World News, Arte, ZDF, France 24, NPR, KCRW, France Inter, Le Figaro, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Herald Tribune, UK Metro, Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, Al Hayat and Al Arabiya praising her work. She has been a guest on British television’s top live music show ‘Later… with Jools Holland’ on the BBC, and on NPR’s popular American music show, Tiny Desk Concerts.
‘Ya Nass’ also made it onto the NPR list of Best World Music Albums for 2014 and the song ‘Deny’ from the album was featured on NPR’s Favourite Songs of 2014 list. A seasoned performer, Yasmine has appeared on stages around the world, including the Sydney Opera House (Australia), Byblos Music Festival (Lebanon), Olympia,
Trianon & Gaîté Lyrique (Paris), Francofolies (Montreal), Meltdown Festival, Glastonbury, Roundhouse & Royal Albert Hall (London), Haus Der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Qasr El Nil (Cairo) Sziget Festival (Hungary), Akbank Festival (Istanbul) and Kyoto Music Exposition Festival (Kyoto).
Over the last ten years, beyond releasing albums and performing across the globe, Yasmine has composed film scores and developed several artistic projects, including an original piece for the TED video, ‘The Power of X’. She has collaborated with movie directors such as Elia Suleiman, Ghassan Salhab & more, and has written music for a Comédie Française production of a play by Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous.
In the summer of 2014, Yasmine was honoured with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres title by the French Minister of Culture. Today, Yasmine is the only Arab vocalist singing in Arabic on stage for audiences worldwide from Tokyo to the USA.