“Her music felt sincerely unrehearsed in its apparent spontaneity, yet precisely prepared in its apparent flawlessness.”
Modern popular music in the Arab world is a business of mass production in a standard mold. Producers bring together lyricists and composers and match them with singers, then after some studio magic, songs are out for mass consumption. There are few exceptions where the singer is a true artist who also participates in the development of the lyrics and composition to express herself sincerely. One of these exceptions is Beirut-born Yasmine Hamdan, who broke the mold and left her mark on the pop scene quickly and with style.
The highly acclaimed international vocalist appeared in Los Angeles in November, offering a single show that attracted a large crowd of fans. She performed from her latest album titled Al-Jamilat (The Beautiful Ones), along with a selection of older material from the album Ya Nass, (Hey People). Her Arabic lyrics addressed a variety of topics as another way of breaking from her fellow singers who typically speak only of love themes. Hamdan, instead, daringly tackled social and political issues in the country as a critic of the Lebanese formula for existence in a delicate balance between numerous religious and political factions. This approach reminds listeners of the early days of Ziad Rahbani who was a pioneering critic. Yasmine, however, goes much further with her exploration of both lyrics and music.
lyrics of “Douss”:
That war was thrown upon us. Enmity you and I did not seek. Wallowing in bitter strife. One you and I did not seek. Their governments, rulers, ministers. One you and I did not seek. Oh the shame the sorrow. Their rings of outlaws we did not seek. The spring for Arabs is here. Feeding us slogans lies and deceits. All of which you and I did not seek. Their conflicts undying greed. Drained our souls, emptied us whole. Their motives, insatiable hunger. You and I did not seek. Oh the shame. And the sorrow. The plots they hatch we did not seek. The spring for Arabs is here.
Her unconventional music is very different from today’s Arab pop. She relies exclusively on Western electronic instrumentation and blurs the lines between composed melodies and on-stage improvisations. Instead of having the familiar shape with a beginning and end of a song, she leads her audiences into lengthy meditative repetitions of catchy phrases occasionally interrupted by improvisations from her three musicians—a drummer, a keyboard player, and a guitarist. Her music felt sincerely unrehearsed in its apparent spontaneity, yet precisely prepared in its apparent flawlessness.
Yasmine Hamdan has been getting significant international attention not common for Arab artists due to her unique style and the professionalism of her work. She first got noticed with a Beirut trip hop duo called Soapkills and performed at various prestigious shows worldwide. With Soapkills her electronic music style was not very familiar to Arab ears and she was liable to get completely rejected because of it, but her innovative Arabic lyrics grabbed the attention of the youth generation and she succeeded wildly. Having lived a part of her life in Kuwait, Hamdan has said that she is inspired by “Bedouin culture and the Gulf.” In her Los Angeles show she kept bringing back occasional drops of ethnic sounds from the East in her tracks, such as a traditional Iraqi rhythm called Shobi, that she pointed out to her audience, and a rababa (instrument of the desert) type of sound synthesized by her guitarist who used a bow on his guitar strings!
Yasmine Hamdan rocked Los Angeles with her daring material, creativity and beauty.
Sami Asmar is the director of UCLA’s Near East Ensemble, and a NASA physicist who researches planetary gravity and atmospheres.