Yasmine Hamdan in times of Ramadan
BY CHITRA KALYANI
Cairo: That we live in surreal, schizophrenic times has never been more evident. Picture this: the first Ramadan season in the era of Mohamed Morsi, and in this desert that is Egypt, appears a mirage of shimmering sensuality: Yasmine Hamdan.
The befuddlement was not simply caused by witnessing two young men who had smuggled in rum-flavored Coca-Cola at Geneina Theater on this Thursday night in the dry season of Ramadan; the performance too carried an air of Bacchic revelry as men and (some) women thronged around the Lebanese artiste, eager to swing and sing along. “Unique” said an audience member in praise of Hamdan’s performance, immediately followed by “and unacceptable.”
Charles Akl of Mawred Al-Thaqafy had already warned The Egypt Monocle that the performance would be “controversial.” What was unexpected (and may have been noted with relief) was that the contrary opinions would find people battling with themselves rather than organizers. For despite how “unacceptable” it may have been, the performance was enjoyable to many, and the opportunity of seeing Hamdan in action, a unique one.
Hamdan drew in the audience, her music backed up by steady beats on which her voice floated free. Her delicate frame, kohl-lined eyes, and bouffant made many draw a comparison between the Lebanese artist and the late Amy Winehouse. With form-fitting leather pants and a black top that flattered her form, the performer started sashaying along to her tunes, occasionally throwing in a small dance, and ending in a finale of belly-dance numbers. The audience was stunned — captivated and shocked by the overt but welcome play on their senses.
“I refuse censorship,” Hamdan told The Egypt Monocle. It is no first for the artist that made her name via indie band Soapkills with Zeid Hamdan (no relation) with a groundbreaking fusion of electronic music to classical Arabic melodies. Their enigmatic sound reflected upon the intoxication glossing the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War, hence the name.
“When I started in Lebanon and the region, there was no place to perform for my kind of music. It was thrilling but painful,” reflected the artist, “and also very lonely.” On her partnership with Zeid, she said, “Our chemistry in music was unique, and Zeid initiated me into a lot of things.”
In fact, Soapkills’ decade-long partnership paved the way for an “alternative culture” and produced three albums — “Bater” (2001), “Cheftak” (2002), and “Enta Fen” (2005). The duo parted ways in 2006 when Zeid went on to form another band, while Yasmine formed her new project Y.A.S. with a new musical partner Mirwais Ahmadzaï, famed for collaborating on three studio albums with Madonna. Y.A.S. went on to release the electronic music album “Arabology” in 2009 with sounds that definitely took their influence from Soapkills.
Now working with Marc Collin, Yasmine has released a self-titled album and has been touring with it. Many of these songs formed the repertoire of her performance of Geneina. Like a muezzin, finger pressed upon one nostril, she let out a nasal-pitched intoxicating sound. Working with different microphones and a vocal synthesizer, she drew people in through the repetition of the sound on different pitches. It was a call to freedom. “I try to work on myself as an Arabic (sic) artist working in a free space,” Hamdan said. “We all work on our freedom” to the existential question ‘What are we here for?”
“It’s not just about singing,” said the artist, “We don’t know what we’re doing here in this life. [Music] gave me a lot of sense and courage.” It is also a bridge that connects her to an audience.
Hamdan found performing to an “occidental audience” a “challenge to be picked up” and “also lonely.” In comparison, she said, “people here understand you.” Not only did audiences understand, but they sang along to the lyrics of her latest album, including the meditative “Bala Tantanat” and her tribute to “Beirut.” But Lebanon is no longer home base for the artist, who is now based in Paris.
While music has her travelling around the world, Hamdan has also worked as music consultant for the film “Al-Zaman al-Baqi” (The Time that Remains) made by her husband, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. Meanwhile, Hamdan sees Arabic music making its way to the world stage, where the segregation between “mainstream” and “world music” would soon diminish.
Soapkills songs were also revisited on the night, such as the electro-pop number “Galbi” (My Heart) and the finale “Habibi Taala Elhani” (Darling Come Save Me), originally an Asmahan number, remixed into a throbbing trip-hop dance song. The song concluded a trio of belly-dancing numbers that ended the night, including “Balad Al-Banat” (Country of Girls) and a cover of Ahmed Adaweyya classic shaabi number “Bent El-Sultan.” A friend said her brother had admittedly stayed behind because watching Yasmine Hamdan perform in Ramadan surely could not be halal.
Yet the extravagance of the night, much like the indulgence in Ramadan delicacies, belied the necessary and implicit contradiction of the season. Or rather, it is the nature of these times of surreal schizophrenia; the best of times, as Charles Dickens would say, and the worst of times.
For more information on the artist, please visit http://www.yasminehamdan.com/. -The Egypt Monocle