by Hannah Frank
Yasmine Hamdan performs Tuesday November 7th at Martyrs’ in Chicago. Now renowned on several continents, she started her music career as part of one of the first indie/electronic bands in the Middle East. In this debut Chicago show, her band takes you on a journey by melding styles, textures and moods. This pop music icon of the Arab world is a deep and communicative artist. Her poetic lyrics – and even her stare – is full of evocative gravitas. Learn more about her new album Al Jamilat here. Purchase tickets to her debut Chicago concert here. In this exclusive interview, the Lebanese artist shares her excitement about checking out Chicago’s blues concerts, her love of Etta James, and the best way to explore countries and cultures.
Chicago is also a city of many different nationalities. What makes your music able to resonate with people of many different cultures or nationalities? I myself belong to different places. I think being plural and having mixed identities is a state in which many people find themselves today.
What material will you be performing? Any particular songs you are looking forward to sharing? We’ll be performing my new record, Al Jamilat (released in the U.S. by Ipecac) as well as songs from [my] previous records. Our goal is to create a mixture of different moods and references, and to take people with us for a ride!
What are your impressions of Chicago? It’s funny because when I think of Chicago, I think of Etta James. (I know she was not from there, but it’s the kind of association I have in my mind). I had a crush on her when I started singing. So when I think of Chicago, I think of the blues. I am really excited to discover the bars and go to see some blues concerts.
What are the biggest differences between America and the Middle East? I am interested in exploring encounters where worlds meet, and not where they separate.
What can fans, and people new to your music, expect to see at Martyrs’? I have a great band, they’re super cool and amazing musicians. Each song we perform has a special meaning to me; different vibes, textures and moods that create imaginary landscapes. It’s like traveling, or being in a road trip. There is something spiritual about art that connects us with our selves and with others; it’s really about coming together and creating bridges.
What musical styles are in your music, and what will be heard in this set on November 7? [It is] difficult to talk about genres. I sing in Arabic, but I like to experience a lot of different sounds textures and genres together. [This band includes guitar, drums, keyboards, bass, sampling, and vocals]. You can hear some Middle Eastern and Asian instruments, or grooves; Gulf/Iraqi, Tuareg sandy guitars, and quirky Buzuk; along with more usual guitars riffs, drums, and [modern pop] synths and rhythms.
What makes the Middle East unique, what would you like people to understand about the region and the people? The best thing to do, when you are curious about a country, is to get more involved. Research and read about it, visit it, or listen to the music, etc. There are so many possible ways for doing that. Food is also a good intro!
How did you discover music? What makes it the best way to share your message? I started my career in Beirut with my previous band SoapKills. The country was still fragile and haunted by its 15 years of civil war, but everything felt so new and exciting somehow. I think I was lucky, as an artist, to have lived this period of awakening, I guess it puts you in a more direct relationship to life, death and beauty.
Where was the video for “Balad” filmed and is the dance in it traditional or a modern dance? There is no specific identity-claim in that song/video (political, racial, gendered, etc.). On the contrary, it refers to the world we live in and how it is organized to exclusively serve the interest of a very small minority in power.
What do you, as an individual, and through your music, wish to share about the reality of the Middle East, politically and artistically? I don’t claim [to have] a clear distinctive identity (Arab, Muslim, woman, etc.). I come from a plural background and belong to different places and cultures. [Rather, it’s] an asset. I consider myself part of a wider subculture that is not defined by religion, nationality, borders or genders. I connect to groups and individuals for their ideas, commitments and fights. That’s how I would rather define myself.
With an overall emphasis of exploring the intersecting of worlds, Yasmine Hamdan’s music (albums, remixes and videos can be heard at www.yasminehamdan.com) is destined to find wider audiences. By the way, ‘Al Jamilat’ means “the beautiful ones”. Purchase tickets for November 7, at Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln in Chicago (8:00pm, Ages 21+) here.