An underground music pioneer
BY CHITRA KALYANI
Cairo: As early as age 12, Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan gave up the dream of being Jim Morrison and, instead, decided to be himself.
His original compositions and collaborations rose to fame with SoapKills — a project with a friend who shares his last name, Yasmine Hamdan, now a solo sensation. For die-hard SoapKills fans, here is some good news early in the article: the Hamdan duo still produces music together.
When SoapKills dissolved in 2006 after a decade-long partnership, Zeid Hamdan entered into musical conversation, as he calls it, with other bands and projects. Among these are Zeid’s solo project ShiftZ, Kazamada with Eka3 producer and musician Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, and Zeid and the Wings.
In his recent visit to Egypt, Hamdan collaborated with Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh, almost like picking up on an earlier conversation with a friend.
Saleh described to The Egypt Monocle what she considered the genius of Zeid Hamdan. Within a few days of working together, the two had improvised on compositions like “Nixon Baba,” “Valerie Giscar D’Estaing” and “Ya Watan Ya Aq” (O Thankless Nation). One day, she found Hamdan asking her to delay a rehearsal for two hours. Together they shot the footage for “Eslahat” and the same night, said Maryam, the video was released.
Hamdan’s surface gentleness hardly belies the powerhouse of energy that is in constant production. “I produce an album every six months,” says the artist in conversation with The Egypt Monocle. From talking about his early strums on the guitar in tones of modest self-deprecation, Hamdan reveals an inner self that finds a deeper companionship in musical conversation.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Zeid Hamdan on his beginnings
I did not start like the Japanese prodigies that start at two, but I got hooked on music when I was 12 and it never let go.
I started playing very naïve songs on my guitar imitating Jim Morrison, but I could never play good covers because I have very bad technique. So I composed original music. Since I was a bad guitarist or a bad singer, singing originals would not show how bad I was.
I love the instrument [guitar] and I love music. Growing up, it was the best way to have fun. It became a cure for me. I would escape in the music and writing; I would fantasize situations. I would fantasize my own character through the music.
I was complex when I was a kid. I was very fat. I was uncomfortable with my body and my shape. In music, I was Jim Morrison (laughs). It’s a very nice way to escape. I love shooting movies also.
Dreaming of film
My dream was being a film director. It was always about recreating an environment of my choice. I accomplish it through music, through movies.
I had a best friend in France. We would go and shoot little movies over the weekend. We put fake blood and made ninja movies. But growing up I broke my camera, and returned to Lebanon. So I continued with music. Lately, I bought a phone camera and started filming again. I have already filmed a lot of videos myself.
I also made a short movie called “Music.” It’s a project about the underground scene in 2005 in Lebanon and it goes through the main bands. It also shows a search for the truth. When the Prime Minister [Rafic Hariri] was assassinated, the slogan was: “We want the truth.” So I made an analogous movie — I used the message to ‘search for the truth’ that comes from one musician to another.
I had also made a label Mooz Records with my friend Khaled Muzammar, which stopped with the war. So I created this digital interface — Lebanese Underground — so as never to be stopped. This label (online where the movie can be found) would go on forever.
On his many bands
I’ve met a lot of musicians and those I got along with, I did projects with. All those bands are just a bunch of friends I meet and collaborate with, not for just one shot, but another after another.
I met Maryam and we became friends, recorded songs and enjoyed it. It will never stop, I hope. Then I met Tamer and made Kazamada, and we recorded. And then I met Mai Walid, and we recorded. I go from a friend to a friend.
Instead of drinking beer together, or listening to music, we make music. That is my main interest. I don’t have much conversation outside the music. It’s not that I’m not interested in anything [else], but music is where I find the best relationships or emotional intensity.
Music as conversation
Let’s say we sit, you and I, and you play an instrument and I play an instrument. We start playing for hours; it’s more intense than any conversation. We share something beyond words or concepts. We share emotion through vibration. Music is vibration. We’re just communicating through music. It is a relation I love and I value. That’s what I try to have through my friends — that’s why I have so many bands, because that’s the main type of relationship I share with people.
I love people with character. I hate wannabes. I do not get along with people that resemble someone or something. For example, Maryam is unique in her voice and character and personality. So if we’re sharing music, it’s going to give something really unique that resembles us. And if I work with Yasmine [Hamdan], it’s the same — her character, her personality, her sensuality, her words are unique. It doesn’t resemble anything.
With every artist I work with, I find unique relations. I won’t go with someone that has the voice of Robert Plant. I need character. Sometimes I have friends I don’t like to talk with, but we share a love for great music. So I would be totally understanding musically, but not get along with them. It happens a lot. A lot of hip-hoppers, I tell them, “I don’t care who you think you are — just give me attitude and power, and for sure, cleverness in the lyrics.”
On SoapKills and Yasmine
I don’t get along so much [with her in personal matters], but I cannot not meet and collaborate with her because musically we get along so well. Our combination produces something beautiful. It has given SoapKills, and even though we stopped for few years, every time we meet again, it gives beautiful music.
Many people have asked me to do a “Best of…” CD with SoapKills, but I’m too young for “Best of…” What I want is to make more music with SoapKills, but we need time, Yasmine and I.
We didn’t perform together publicly for quite some time. We do think about it, because she has respect for music as well. We need to take our time. But the obstacle is both our characters as I mentioned. We sometimes fight, like cats and dogs.
I have other friends like that. RGB for a long time, had attitude like that, but you know it’s his personal achievement. But his music is so powerful. so I tell him, “I don’t want to know about your personal life. I want you to give me music. Be the artist that I admire, that’s what I want. What you do after that is your personal life, I don’t want to interfere.”
I worked with Yasmine since 1996 till 2006 — ten years. Great fun. I had other intense relationships, like with the band The New Government. But I have another lifestyle totally. We don’t share lifestyles or visions at all. But when we perform together onstage, we shine. It’s fun.
Zeid Hamdan’s latest release was the soundtrack to the movie Beirut Hotel released in January this year, and the online release of “Aasfeh” by Zeid and the Wings. Much of his work is found on his online site: Lebanese Underground. –The Egypt Monocle