The Middle East has deep history when it comes to powerful, female singers, but few contemporary artists have caught the imagination of the Arab world quite like Yasmine Hamdan. Spending most of her time between Paris and Beirut, the Lebanese singer-songwriter is unlike any female artist in the region right now. Having come to the attention of the masses with Zeid Hamdan as part of too-cool-for-school duo, Soapkills, Ms Hamdan stands as an almost celestially musical being, who’s distinct approach to her craft continues to produce some truly unique results.
More starstruck in this case than usual, we sat down with the songstress ahead of what turned out to be one hell of a night at the Music Tent.
Ok, Yasmine, tell us a little bit about how it all began – what inspired you to follow the musical path?
It actually all began by accident. I met Zeid (Hamdan, but no relation) at school; he was doing music and I had always dreamt of singing but I never understood the mechanisms or where to begin. Singing started as a hobby and then became more serious – I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life. This is what thrills me; it drives me to progress and do things. I’m also very stubborn – this was another reason I went into music. I didn’t give myself the choice to do anything else. I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do at a very young age.
Lucky you – some of us still have no idea. So, how do you feel about being called the ‘Modern Voice of the Arab World’?
I don’t support it, nor am I against it. It’s a label people use when writing an article; they want it to be attractive. I don’t consider myself as this or that, I’m a living person.
With Soapkills, you did something amazing and made Arabic music cool to the masses. Did you set out to do something different or did it happen more organically?
It was part of something I believed in. I believe that Arabic is cool. It wasn’t planned; I wanted to work on material that was thrilling and for that material to be inspiring. It’s like cooking, in a way; when the ingredients are good you know you’re going to have a good meal
You’ve performed all over the world; what have been your favourite and least favourite locations?
Each experience is different; the audience, the venue, the culture – it differs from place to place. It’s not meant as a compliment, but Egypt is one of my favourite places to perform. People in Egypt know how to have fun, they’re enthusiastic, and they have such good spirit. The crowd here is always incredible. For me, every concert in Egypt is a pleasure.
If I have a bad experience, it has nothing to do with the crowd – it has something to do with the people organising the gigs. We freak out before concerts because we have no idea what’s going to happen, we don’t know if we’re going to have the equipment we need. I hope it gets better in the future.
You made a cameo appearance in Only Lovers Left Alive and worked with Tom Hiddleston. Tell us more about that… (Also, was he nice? We hear he’s nice.)
He was incredibly nice. He walked around with a wig on set so I got used to that, and I was really surprised when I saw him with his normal hair! I spent around six days on set and everybody involved in the scene was really nice. I was working with Jim Jarmusch, who, as well as being a fantastic artist, is somebody I have always looked up to in terms of his craft. He is somebody who I respect a lot and who has inspired me. It was a huge honor to be in his movie.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
At the moment I’m not listening to very much because I’m on the road and have very little free time, but I usually listen to Pakistani music. I have massive love for James Blake, he’s great. I saw him perform live at Primavera and he was amazing. I’ve seen some really fantastic artists, including Anthony Hagarty and Patti Smith. I often find myself in the right place at the right time when watching live performances. I’m exposed to different kinds of music, and it’s really interesting to watch other artists perform.
Did you draw a pencil moustache on your face when you worked with CocoRosie? What was it like to work with them?
I didn’t draw a pencil moustache, sadly. CocoRosie are very talented, very beautiful people. We were actually friends before we worked together. These girls have spent most of their lives on the road, and they’re very experimental with their music. They’re a huge inspiration to me.
In an ideal world where nobody is dead, who would you like to collaborate with?
I would like to perform with a lot of people! Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, maybe. I love Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but I don’t know if we would be a great mix musically. If we’re talking about contemporary music, I think James Blake is someone I would like to collaborate with. Nick Drake, too.
We’re getting the feeling that you don’t have any time for yourself - how do you unwind when you can?
I would like to be on the beach eating seafood with a lot of sunshine, not actually doing anything, just shutting down from the world. I like to read and listen to music, and I feel like I might really enjoy a meditation centre or something. At the moment, it’s really hard to slow down. We live in a society that is very materialistic, and we’re not as connected to the spiritual aspect as we should be.
What does the future hold for Yasmine Hamdan?
I have concerts until November, so before I can do anything I have to finish touring. Afterwards, I’ll take a break – I have to relax! That’s my first priority. I need some time off to chill. I have to recharge my inner self, so I can get back on stage and make more music.
By Mahmoud Hussein