Yasmine Hamdan breaks the confines of traditional Arabic music

Yasmine Hamdan in Only Lovers Left Alive.
Yasmine Hamdan in Only Lovers Left Alive. Courtesy of Yasmine Hamdan

In the hazy glow of a small Tangierian club stands Yasmine Hamdan, sensually rolling her hips, head cocked, singing in Arabic about longing, adoration, and the pain of separation. Here, Hamdan is singing for vampires Adam and Eve played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in a standout moment in the 2013 film, Only Lovers Left Alive. The film, directed by Jim Jarmusch, featured Hamdan in her natural habitat — using emotion to defy language barriers.

The Beirut-born artist turned to music as a means of self-exploration, something that she deemed nearly impossible as a young woman in post-war Lebanon. But in 1998 she pioneered the city's underground music scene with her electro-pop duo Soapkills — one of the first indie bands to emerge from the Middle East, blazing a path of unconventional pop-infused rebellion. Following the dissolution of the band, Hamdan, 41, has released two solo records. The most recent, her first international release, titled Al Jamilat ("The Beautiful Ones") finds the singer reciting poetry and calling out political hypocrisy, all while keeping it undeniably cool.

Though Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive was filmed in part in Detroit, her upcoming appearances at the Arab American National Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts this week will mark the singer's first time to the city. When we speak with her she is eager for Mexican food recommendations and non-tourist sightseeing suggestions, and holds back tears when she discovers that she will not only get to visit the Rivera Court at the DIA (something she has been waiting years to see) but she will be performing in it.

Metro Times: Did you have an American audience before Only Lovers Left Alive?

Yasmine Hamdan: No, I didn't. I mean, before that I was with my band Soapkills. I formed a band [at] the end of the '90s, and it was after the civil war. It was a little bit before social media, you know what I mean? We stopped Soapkills in 2005 and then I had an album with Mirwais [Ahmadzaï, the producer who produced Madonna's Music, American Life, and Confessions on a Dance Floor], but we only released it in Europe and in France.

It's amazing because I've been struggling somehow or fighting those boxes in the music business. When you're Arab and you sing in Arabic, even though your music is not traditional or whatever, they put you in the box of "world music." So, with the Jim Jarmusch movie it was amazing because artists, we don't care about boxes and don't care about those borders that are imposed on us somehow. Maybe it's the way people are used to consuming, I don't know. But when I appeared in his film, it put me in front of the right public because the audience that watches a Jim Jarmusch movie is kind of an adventurous audience. It was a gift.

MT: What was the hardest part of starting a music career in a war-torn country?

Hamdan: There was nowhere to perform. The country was, after 15 years of civil war — everything was dysfunctional. Not that now it's not dysfunctional, but many things are more organized now. Half the city was on the floor and destroyed. It was crazy to start a music career in this environment. And, of course, the Arab world was also not at all ready for any kind of a touring band. We didn't have the venues. Nowhere in the Arab world did you have bands. The music we did was considered to be subversive or nonconforming to the rules, which means it was not Arabic, but it was not Western, either. It was confusing. It became like an intellectual activist, indie, underground-ish thing, which I think is very important because we started to be censored. TVs didn't want us to sing our songs or air our clips and the radios didn't care to play our music because Arabic radio didn't consider that, like, authentic Arabic, and the Western radios would not consider that at all English or French or whatever. It somehow created this interesting underground energy.

MT: Would you say that self-expression was not valued because of war?

Hamdan: It's very complex. The first civil war was a 15-year civil war, chaotic between so many factions and for so many different reasons. I mean, now we know. I know at least that people who did the civil war — who, by the way, are still in power — they created this chaos, they created this destruction because they wanted to take over the country and to rule and to become richer and to govern in a fascistic way. They're still creating the same tensions. Maybe we're not in war, but the components have not been dealt with.

It's legal mafia. It's nothing else. You know, it's mafia taking over, willing over the country... So, it's more complex than that. I think that the Lebanese are amazing. They have this amazing joy of life, but I think they're missing the point of questioning abuse and questioning wars. And it's important to do it because if you don't do it after the civil war, then you don't do it 10 years later, then you find yourself with the same problems. And so maybe people don't want to change. I don't know, I'm just... it's very difficult to have a clear idea of why things were not dealt with in a more intelligent way. But there are so many great initiatives and so many interesting people on the ground trying things. But it's always, you know, different energies fighting.

MT: What are you focusing your energy on in the coming year?

Hamdan: I've been traveling nonstop — five or six years. I've been touring nonstop, I've been recording nonstop, I've been working nonstop, I've been doing promotion nonstop, it's crazy. I'd like to start creating in a different way. It's going to be a surprise. I'm just trying to prepare for things, but I'd like to have some space and to be able to create, breathe, meet people, and eventually [make] a new record. I need to go back to the things I love also, like meditation, yoga, things like that. I'm extremely happy, but I need a little period where I'm just resting and starting to ignite new adventures.

Yasmine Hamdan will conduct a Q&A following a screening of Only Lovers Left Alive at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 6 at the Arab American National Museum at 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, and will perform at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7 at the Detroit Institute of Arts' Rivera Court at 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org; Both events are free and require an RSVP; see arabamericanmuseum.org for more information.

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