INTERVIEW: Yasmine Hamdan

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Y.A.S. ROCKS THE KASBAH

On June 8, the world witnessed the long awaited release of YAS’ debut album Arabology. The result is a dozen of upbeat electronic dance tracks that no doubt will do well in the club circuit, and have the potential to propel Arabic pop to the top of the western charts for the first time in history. YAS consists of Yasmine Hamdan, the female half of former Lebanese cult band Soap Kills, and Mirwais, a leading member of the French electronic scene and known as a producer of the Madonna albums Music, American Life and Confessions on a Dance Floor. A few days after Arabology’s release, Plastik spoke to Yasmine in Paris. She had just finished rehearsals and enjoyed a coffee in a café near Metro Parmentier. She was in a good mood, enjoying the first rays of sunshine following three weeks of rain and grey skies..

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We do Arabic-Electro-Pop, as simple as that.
— Yasmine Hamdan

It’s been only five days since Arabology was released. This must be a very hectic time for you?

”Yes, only yesterday I did two TV- and a radio interview, and this week we do a show on Canal Plus. But it has been hectic for the last two months really. We had to do so much promotion for the album, it was crazy. I performed a few days ago in Cannes and I’m preparing for a concert at the Nouveau Casino in Paris. So, yes, doing many things at the same time. Nonetheless, I’m very excited.”

In interviews you keep emphasizing that YAS is not world music. Mirwais for example told a Swiss magazine:
“The idea is that today, in Western culture, we hear about Arabs everyday - in a bad way - but we lack cultural representations that could mix with western culture. I don’t want to do world music, but a good western production with a real Arab identity.”

“Absolutely. We do Arabic electro pop, as simple as that. Why should Arabic music only be called world music? When I discovered this term, I was shocked. Why should the music I do be classified as “world”? The world according to who? And why can electronic music only be in English? Anyway, Mirwais and I did not want to do fusion. We tried to meet, not merge. I have my inspirations, he has his, and we built our collaboration around our dissimilarities.

You think Mirwais’ Afghan background made it easier for him to connect with Arabic music?

“I think it did. I think we met at the right time. I wanted to initiate a project in Arabic and he has this curiosity about the world and the politics we live in. So, I only needed to convince him artistically, not conceptually. We were both excited about doing something in Arabic. Nothing kitschy or exotic, but modern. We were quite confident that Arabic offers very rich material to work with”

Is it very different from what you did with Soap Kills? (Or is there some continuation as well?)

“It is very different, but it’s still me. I work with different people, it’s a different experiment, yet I still write, compose and sing. You know, after we [Yasmine and Zeid Hamdan] decided to stop with Soap Kills, I was quite lost for a while, but I knew two things: I wanted to do something different and I wanted to go more electronic, which was quite a challenge, because I liked electro pop, but wasn’t from that scene. So, when I started working with Mirwais, it took me some time to find my way. We both needed to tune. And we needed to come up with something that the Arabic world could identify with, and could be enjoyed by people who don’t understand Arabic.”

How was it to cooperate with Mirwais?

“It was a bit like a ping pong game. Sometimes I would have a song, bring it to him and he’d take it from there. Sometimes he would give me an instrumental, or a melody to work on. For example with Get It Right, I was recording a song in the studio when he walked in. He had this song, Keep The Trance, which he had done for Madonna but wasn’t used. And so, we decided to somehow combine the two. The result is a catchy, simple, but fun song.”

“In Yaspop, he gave me an instrumental and a melody for the chorus and asked me to work on it. I found that the song had something militaristic, it made me think of old children songs we used to sing. You know, this song about two men talking to each other about having a fly in his slip. At the same time, I was very concerned with what was happening in Lebanon in 2006. And so Yaspop became what it is now: a dialogue between two men, based on the line There Is An American In My Garden. By the end of the song, the guy has an Italian in his bra, a Chinese at the Litani etc etc. It’s an ironic, indirectly political song, but at the same time I just tried to have fun.”

Was it not difficult at times a well, as Mirwais is such a heavyweight in the world of modern pop?

“Mirwais found it very difficult to work with me! I can be very stubborn, you know [laughs]. But seriously, yes, we had our tensions. But that’s normal in a collaboration. Mirwais has a strong character, is very talented, and I can be very possessive about my songs. Sometimes I had to fight for what I wanted. Sometimes I found it difficult to take distance from my own compositions and it would take time for me to get used to them again after Mirwais had worked on them. I learnt to be more flexible, while in the first year of our collaboration, I worked a lot with Abdulwahab Abrit [Yasmine’s musical director, and the musician she performs with on stage] to shape the songs a bit before giving them to Mirwais. We did that for example for Coit Me and Mahi (Hala), an Iraqi song from the 1950s. Abdelwahab has a great talent for mediating between me and Mirwais. He does the same on stage.”

What has been the biggest challenge you think?

”Artistically, this whole project was a huge challenge for me. I needed to find my inspiration, my marks, get rid of some blockages and become a more mature, more patient person. Three years to finalize an album is a long time. But this how life goes, we don’t always have the choice, and it’s probably for the best.”

How does the future look like for Yasmine Hamdan?

”I’m very happy. I feel strong and I feel I can initiate a lot of things. Arabology is a very ambitious project that deserves a chance to be exposed, and right now I jut want to develop this music further on stage.”

ArtEli Rezkallah