As part of the Downtown Contemporary Art Festival's scheme to resuscitate Cairo's decrepit architecture, the ageing Qasr Al-Nil Theatre was yanked into the future on Friday 4 April, its retro maroon chairs and dilapidated interiors juxtaposed for the night with the electro folk pop music of Lebanese singer/songwriter Yasmine Hamdan.
An icon of underground music in the Arab region, Hamdan performed a dynamic line-up of songs about weddings, divorces, and dictators. The lyrics may have been infused with nostalgia, lament and subversion, but the performance took the crowd way past the edge of their seats.
The magnetic performer, best known for her Indie/electronic duo Soapkills, which she founded with Zeid Hamdan in the late 1990s, currently resides in Paris, where she recorded her past two albums, Arabology in 2009 under the Y.A.S moniker, and Ya Nass in 2013.
Hamdan also held a Q&A with renowned Egyptian filmmaker Yousri Nasrallah at Cinema Odeon on Thursday 3 April, at new art house cinema initiative Zawya's screening of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, in which she performs.
To conclude her Cairo weekend, Hamdan sat down with Ahram Online for a conversation on inspiration, vampires, and her Instagram photos.
Ahram Online (AO): On Thursday, after the screening of Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, in which you perform a song in Arabic, you said you feel very emotional when singing in your language, which is why it’s the only language you sing in. To you, how important is being emotional when you sing?
Yasmine Hamdan (YH): I think it is the number one thing. You are expressing an emotion when you're a singer and when you write music. And music itself is like a living, organic thing. And emotion is universal. I can experience an emotion when I listen to music that touches my heart; it's something that you don't control. It is like a gift, from God. Through emotion, you can communicate with a lot of people, and without language, because it goes straight to the heart. I feel that with a lot of artists that I don't understand; I don't need to understand, I just feel it, here, and it inspires me.
AO: You know, an Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, is currently working on a documentary about Um Kulthoum, even though she doesn't speak a word of Arabic, but she fell in love with her music.
YH: I know Shirin, she's a great artist.
AO: Actually, Um Kulthoum used to sing on the stage you were performing on last night!
YH: I know, and for me that's incredible. And you know, you feel that the place is haunted. The mood, and everything, did not change. I’m sure that when I watch last night's performance on YouTube, I will feel emotional. And this is so great, I'm so honoured.
AO: On Thursday you also mentioned that stepping out of yourself, through the collaborations you do with different artists, feeds your music. Tell me about the most unusual collaboration you did, or an experience that taught you something completely unexpected.
YH: All of them. I never collaborate with artists if there are no surprises. Surprise is part of the process. Lately, doing this film with Jim Jarmusch was great. He was like an angel who just came and gave me a gift. When I work with people, I'm always searching for surprises and inspiration, because that’s good for my soul, and it's good for my art. I also really need to be connected on a human level, and to be in a harmonious and healthy working environment.
AO: You are always searching or stumbling on things to give you inspiration, not only in other artists. What are the things that keep inspiring you over and over?
YH: Well…when I started doing music I had a lot of existential questions. And I felt that if I wanted to continue living, and find some sort of happiness, it would involve discipline. You have to put yourself in an environment that gives you something, like hope, that allows you to go on with your life, and face your struggles, because life is difficult. Reality is difficult. But art gives you a lot of answers. I can meet an old lady and be happy for the whole day, because she can give me something. I can also spend an hour in the park and meet a squirrel or feed a bird and get inspired. I can also go to India and eat an Indian meal, or read a book or have dinner with friends or have a great lunch with my partner, it depends. But you're not always connected. You don’t always accept the happy moments you live in.
AO: You recently said that art is like love, you cannot force it. How else are art and love alike?
YH: When you fall in love with someone or something, you don't have the choice. Your body, your heart, tells you want to go there. This is how I would define art. When I started doing music, I didn't decide to start. I mean, I decided at some point, but it kind of fell on me. And I was like, what's happening? And I didn't have the choice somehow. It saved me. I was a very melancholic teenager, I was in a very difficult place, but at the same time I was so privileged, I went to great schools and got a good education. But I was…very bored. I was very bored by conventional people around me. Somehow music created poetry. It made me dream. Now, I'm more balanced, but I still don't live in people's…life. I have one leg here and one leg there. And I like that. There's something in doing music that allows you to be in an environment when you're very close to life but also very close to death.
AO: I think that's very relevant to your role in Only Lovers Left Alive, because it is after all a film about vampires, and your scene comes at a point in the film where the two characters are very close to death yet you kind of push them closer to life.
YH: Yes. And that's very funny because like I told you, Jarmusch is like an angel. When I met him, I was getting out of this Y.A.S project and I was so lost, but I had hope. I didn't know at all what I wanted to do, and he came like an angel to me. You know, I do believe in signs. I do believe in magnetism.
AO: On your Instagram account, you have taken two photos since coming to Cairo -- one is of a former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi poster and the other is you pointing to the top of one of the pyramids. Why these two in particular?
YH: Well…because it is a question mark for me, Sisi is a question mark. And it says a lot to me. I just took the photo, and I felt it was right to publish it, without a comment. And the other one is about the fun of being here in Egypt!
AO: The crowd was going crazy last night demanding Aziza, how would you explain that?
YH: It's because Aziza talks about every single Egyptian woman. I am a woman, I lived in the Arab world, and this is a song that is directly linked to my experience. It's a song about humour, it's about harassment, and it’s about her. When I explain this song in Europe, I always say that it was inspired by a lot of Egyptian movies -- you always have this hairy ugly guy, and you see the woman as an object. And you also have the women’s sense of powerlessness. But it takes two to tango. Women should stop, and step out of this role. It only takes looking at reality and at yourself from a different perspective. It only takes a second. But this second will take time. I think it's as much women's responsibility as it is men's. The song is also about being a drama queen, and it talks about hypocrisy when it comes to sex, and sensuality.
AO: Speaking of sensuality, have you been criticised for your stage performances?
YH: Sometimes, yes. And not only in the Arab world. People either get it or they don't. But this is my culture, we all grew up watching Sherihan…This is how I move. When I dance, this is how I dance. When you're dancing in a certain way, singing in a certain way, there is no contradiction between you as an artist and you having fun.
AO: You were one of the major influences on Mashrou Leila and many other independent underground bands in Lebanon. What do you think of the regional underground music scene right now?
YH: I think it is important and it is great that there is space for everyone to do things and experiment. We are millions of Arabs everywhere, and things are now really starting to move and should move more. It is a normal consequence of today's world, today's energy, and everything that's been happening. There are a lot of initiatives that are great, and a lot of different artists in all types of art; they are starting to push out the old, and grab their voices. And this is what I did, I grabbed my voice. I had no space for that, but I grabbed it, and I invented it. Now there is more space for that.