Yasmine Hamdan has spent her life running from conflict. Born in 1976, a year after the outbreak of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, the underground music icon spent much of her adolescence away from her homeland, living in the UAE, Greece and Kuwait – a country her family fled following the 1990 invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces.
For 12 years, the Lebanese singer – who although she lived in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain when she was younger, makes her UAE performance debut in Dubai tomorrow – has lived in near-anonymity in Paris, deliberately stalking what she calls “the margins of society”.
But now that happy life, built alongside her fellow Arab emigree husband, Elia Suleiman – the celebrated Palestinian filmmaker behind Cannes award-winner Divine Intervention – is under threat, as France follows the United Kingdom and the United States into increasing levels of intolerance and populist rhetoric. A little over a year after the Bataclan terrorist attacks in the city, political commentators and analysts are beginning to view the spectre of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party as a serious force at the French presidential election in April.
“Things have changed – you feel anxiety in the air, tension,” says Hamdan, refusing to single Paris out in the growing global trend. “It’s worrying. I flew and escaped this kind of tension and drama my whole life and it seems it’s catching me wherever I go.”
Hamdan’s arrival in Paris signalled the end of the most engaging chapter in her career – the eight years she spent as one-half of Soap Kills, the trip-hop-influenced duo she fronted alongside intimate friend Zeid Hamdan, whose haunting, earthy electro-soundscapes first proved Arabic-language indie could be as effecting and inventive as anything produced in the West.
Inspired by the passionate articulation of classic-era vocalists such as Aisha El Marta, Nagat El Saghira and Asmahan, Hamdan’s breathy, intimate invocations – which formed Soapkills’s emotional core – were the sound of the singer rediscovering her homeland.
“I’m of the war generation,” says the 40-year-old. “I lived very much abroad – somehow I’ve always been searching for this place called ‘home’ – but after returning, I could not find it in Lebanon, I could not find it anywhere.
“I was addressing this identity question – roots, belonging, personality ... by singing in Arabic. But I never had the pretension, ambition or desire to sing Arabic the way it should be sung.”
Like countless musical revolutions before it, the Soap Kills legend has been largely written retrospectively. The early underground success of self-produced albums Beta (2001) and Cheftak (2002) led to international interest that never quite developed, including a French record deal that was shelved when the indie label went bankrupt.
“I remember the first time I heard the term ‘world music’ – I felt insulted,” recalls Hamdan. “Me and Zeid came to Paris and started meeting labels. They said: ‘We don’t know where to put you. You’re not world music, but you’re not singing in English or French – you’re strange’.”
After initially trying to maintain the musical relationship across two continents, Soapkills dissolved following 2005's swansong Enta Fen, a mix of new leftover material and remixes.
“I didn’t have the stamina,” Hamdan admits. “I wanted to pursue my own thing – I had desires, ideas I wanted to accomplish, and I needed to be on my own for that.”
It is always lazy to define leading women by the men they work with – but it’s undeniable Hamdan’s two post-Soapkills releases were inspired by the same collaborative principles.
The first, Y.A.S., was spawned following a chance meeting at a "Madonna party" no less – with Mirwais, the Parisian producer who helped the Queen of Pop's sound on albums Music, American Life and Confessions on a Dance Floor. Designed as a rebuke to media stereotypes, the duet LP Arabology was clearly far less collaborative than Hamdan might have hoped.
“I went from the most underground band in the world, to signing with Madonna’s producer and a record label that is extremely mainstream – it was interesting,” Hamdan says. “But I can’t say the record is my record.
“After my experience with Marwais, I realised I needed to be in environment where I’m an equal, or if not, the boss.”
Such an equilibrium was found on Hamden's solo debut, released internationally as Ya Nass in 2013, which was co-written and producer by Marc Collin – best-known as co-founder of kooky French bossa nova covers act Nouvelle Vague (who also performed at Dubai's The Music Room in March). This time, the relationship was sympathetic, respectful and remarkably fruitful – Ya Nass is a diverse and mature set, capturing the emotional intensity of Soapkills's best work, but sympathetically spread over broader electronic and acoustic hues.
Next, Hamdan has gone down “the boss” route, recently wrapping months of gruelling sessions – at studios spread across Hoboken, New Jersey, Beirut, Paris and London – recording a follow-up LP set for release in March. She describes it as the toughest project she has undertaken yet.
“I’ve always had a sense that I am doing something very important, something vital,” she adds.
“It has not been an easy road, and it’s still not – some people are interested in getting things easily, I’ve always liked tough things. I set the bar very high, I’m very tough on myself. Me and myself, that’s where the tension comes in.”
• Yasmine Hamdan performs at The Music Room, Majestic Hotel Tower, on Wednesday, November 7 , advance tickets Dh220 online at www.platinumlist.net