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Yasmine Hamdan: On movement, sensuality and the merging of cultures

23 Mar 2017

With her unconventional amalgamation of Middle Eastern musical tradition and Western concepts, Yasmine Hamdan is often described as the modern voice of Arabic popular music. But such a description only tells half the story. She first emerged on the scene as one-half of indie electro-pop duo Soapkills and since, Hamdan has been innovating, discovering and adventuring, consistently traversing new heights with her music. The Beirut-born singer-songwriter has travelled the world introducing her unique sound to audiences from Tokyo to the USA. Hamdan cannot be reduced to a single label. She may be an Arab woman and a vocalist, but her music is internationally relevant and universally recognised. Her new album Al Jamilat reinforces this through its use of a multitude of textures, arrangements and ideas which all add a very fresh and nomadic feel to the overall composition.

“I’m Lebanese and I lived in the Arab world, so it’s part of my identity,” Hamdan explains. “But I’ve lived in many other places and I do feel the need to explore other possibilities and to create a bridge in music, a space where different worlds can meet.”

As well as contemplating themes of home and movement, the album itself was recorded in four different cities; New York, Paris, Beirut and London, emphasising the influence that geography can have on the creative process. But having experienced a number of different cultures throughout her life, Hamdan appreciates how this has impacted the way she approaches music.

“I think that when you are in contact with other people that come from other places and other cultures, you get to have a different perspective on things. You become more sensitive, and the notion of home or of identity becomes a little bit more diverse or complex. It’s becoming more and more the reality of the world we live in, and I think that this can help you create from a new perspective because you can then create without taking territorial or geographical zones into consideration. Your relationship to these things changes.”

While Al Jamilat certainly draws attention to Hamdan’s artistic progression from the days of Soapkills, her sultry and instantly recognisable vocals remain in Arabic, a decision that stems from her own influences but also as a result of her desire to formulate new interpretations.

“I listen to a lot of very old Arabic music,” she says, “[so] all those artists from the 30s and the 40s and the 50s have been a very big inspiration. And then there are many acts and artists living today that I really respect and feel inspired by. Someone like James Blake for example or PJ Harvey. I think it’s normal for many people working on a creative level to take something that is very local or familiar or that comes from home and then put it into a wider context that is more universal.”

Al Jamilat may feature elements that are unique to Hamdan and evocative of her debut album Ya Nass, but she admits that it has been hard not to be influenced by the current political climate. “It’s been very weird to look at what is happening and still very complex to interpret or understand”, she notes. “I like to approach things in a more abstract and cryptic way, but it is a more engaged record.” The album’s title track is about womanhood, an ode to the courage, strength and beautiful contradictions of all women, a fitting response to the issues of the day. “I think as an artist you always are political, and you always have an impact if people do follow you. It’s a responsibility and I take it very seriously.”

With contributions from musicians like Shahzad Ismaily and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and production completed by British producers Luke Smith and Leo Abraham, the new album shows clear stylistic and musical development. Though many of the ideas were pieced together in an atypical fashion while on tour and in transit, Hamdan believes that this movement was a key element in the album’s creation. By making use of musicians from different parts of the world, she was able to experiment with alternating moods and characteristics, which provided a challenge but also a sense of playfulness. “I always love to explore, and with this record, I’m exploring myself and my music and my language in a different way with some different tools.”

Ultimately, Al Jamilat is an album of personal development as well as emotional exchange. “It makes me travel, it’s different landscapes, it’s different textures, it’s different moves, it’s different times of the day.’ Hamdan explains. “But there’s also some freshness, some sensuality, some tenderness, and of course, some belly dance!”

Above all else, Hamdan is hopeful that the album will appeal to people that are both adventurous and inquisitive about the world. “I would hope that people would listen to this record with very open and fresh ears,” she says. “I think that’s the magic with music; it’s a territory outside of borders, outside of checkpoints and you can create a space with no codes, and you can create movement. It’s like a pocket where people can meet and exchange.”

Al Jamilat was released on 17 March via Crammed Discs. Yasmine Hamdan will be performing at Scala, London on 15 May. Tickets are available now.