INTERVIEW: 'Art is my country, I feel home on any stage or studio ' Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan

Nourhan Tewfik , Tuesday 17 Nov 2015

A renowned electro-music composer and producer, Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan exhibits his talent in his most recent project, Halawella

Zeid Hamdan
Lebanese electro-music composer and producer Zeid Hamdan. (Photo: Ali Saadi)

Named by CNN network “one of the eight most influential figures in Lebanese culture,” Zeid Hamdan is a renowned Lebanese electro-music composer and producer.

Hamdan was and continues to be a staunch supporter of budding Lebanese and Arab underground bands, evident by his collaborations with Kazamada, Zeid and the Wings, Katibeh 5, the New Government. Besides collaborations with Maryam Saleh, he has also worked with Egyptian singer Maii Waleed.

Hamdan also composed music for and sang in Soap Kills band, which was founded in 1997 and also featured Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan.

Also an established film composer, Hamdan created scores for From Beirut With Love (Waël Noureddine, 2008), El Tangawya (Erin von Alberti, 2009), Hadouta Men Sag (Aida El-Kashef, 2010), and Beirut Hotel (Danielle Arbid, 2012), among other films.  

He has deservedly earned the title of “godfather of Lebanese underground music” after almost two decades of experimentations with music.

Hamdan’s most recent project is titled Halawella, a collaboration with Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh which comprises of an amalgam of Arabic songs, both old and new, fused with electronic music.

Released in September 2015 by Mostakell, a music label for indie Arabic music operating under Eka3 platform, Halawella is only the continuation of Saleh and Hamdan’s five-year collaboration.

The album includes 10 songs, six of which are rearrangements of Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Fouad Negm’s songs: Valerie Giscar D Estaing, Nixon Baba, Ghaba, Youyou, Halawella and Chal El Hawa. The other four songs were composed by Saleh, and specifically written for the project, by Mido Zoheir, Omar Mostafa, Amr Qenawi, and Maryam Saleh.

In Halawella, Hamdan creates an inexplicably novel music experience, mastering an amalgam of electronic, trip, hip-hop and new age music. In the case of Sheikh Imam's songs, Hamdan intertwines electronic beats with Egyptian folklore. He exhibits a remarkable sensitivity towards the songs’ satirical undertones, and embraces the features of dark humour that reign throughout the album, creating a musical experience that serves and enhances this state. Hamdan also augments the state of rebelliousness the lyrics imply, his beats inspiring a thoughtful reflection on the songs' subtle yet powerful messages.

Ahram Online spoke to Hamdan about his most recent project, Halawella.

Ahram Online (AO): Halawella is considered your first project fusing electronic music with Egyptian folklore. To what extent did Imam’s repertoire accommodate your amalgamation of electronic, trip hop and new age music? 

Zeid Hamdan (ZH): I discovered Sheikh Imam in depth through Maryam’s interpretations. I had vaguely heard some tracks before I met her and had not been so hooked because of the bad quality of the recordings available. But as soon as Maryam sang a few songs of this repertoire, I was touched and moved by the powerful spirit of those compositions.

In Halawella, I very simply and in the most minimalistic way tried to build around Maryam’s voice an environment that would not compete or interfere with her interpretations and let my arrangements be guided by her voice. We first recorded her singing on a metronome and one reference note. I started building progressively on top. Dealing with quartertones was the biggest challenge but it appeared that the compositions originally had a pop feel that I was able to catch and translate.

Zeid Hamdan and Maryam Saleh
Lebanese electro-music composer and producer Zeid Hamdan, and Egyptian singer and songwriter Maryam Saleh. (Photo: Ali Saadi)

AO: Some of Halawella’s songs were previously arranged electronically as part of your five-year long collaboration with Maryam Saleh. Why did you approach them again?

ZH: They were all retouched and rearranged in a final phase, because after four years, we felt the arrangements were aging. It often happens in electronic music. We asked a brilliant producer, Marc Codsi from the band LUMI to pump up the electronics which took off a bit of dust of the original arrangements I had done. Ziad Sidawi’s mastering on top really gave justice to the end result.

AO: Some of the albums’ songs are inundated with dark humor and speak back and to the political. Did these themes influence your musical arrangements?

ZH: Certainly, words never obviously drive the colour of the arrangements but for sure in the choices of sounds and movement of ‘Ghaba’ I could say yes I tried to give an oppressive feel. With ‘Halawella’ and ‘Chal El Hawa’, I really tried to hear the songs as if they were written today.

AO: Collaborating with artists and bands is a hallmark of your musical career. How important are such collaborations to you?

ZH: It is essential for me to collaborate not because of the musical aspect or the end result product, I love making friends and going deep into relationships. If you see me not producing for any artists it means I’m really going through phases of solitude. I need artists’ presence and aura for inspiration and to enjoy life. The nationality or style doesn’t really matter for me, it’s mostly the spirit of the artist I meet that pushes me to involve in their carrier.

AO: But this isn’t your first collaboration with Mostakell, right?

ZH: Mostakell’s adventure started with Tamer Abu Ghazaleh when he invited me to be part of the band Kazamada. This really opened the door for me to the Cairo underground scene. I am a huge fan of Tamer and since I signed tour management with his label, it has allowed me to tour through his networks in the Arab world and meet his family of artists and musicians. I honestly love Mostakell’s team and consider them as my family.

AO: In light of your valuable contributions to Lebanon’s underground music as a songwriter, composer and producer, how do you assess the country’s alternative music scene today?

ZH: It’s so small, but doing well. I think the few successful bands represent well the spirit of our little country. But to be honest, I feel art is my country and feel home on any stage or studio around the world.

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