What do you do when the world is seemingly crumbling all around you? For Zeid Hamdan, the answer is always the same: go to the studio.
Between the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, which ended in 1990, the Cedar Revolution of 2005 and last year's nationwide anti-government protests, the pioneering musician and producer has channelled three decades worth of hope and despair into a range of prolific projects. These include co-founding the seminal Arab trip-hop duo Soap Kills and producing for singers Maryam Saleh and Maii Waleed.
And now, with his homeland in the grips of a dire financial crisis, The National finds that Hamdan is in a Beirut studio working on his next creation.
“This is the only thing I know," he says. "I have seen a lot and I don’t make a conscious effort to make a comment on what is happening," he says. "Instead, all that has transpired over the years, you can hear in all my work. It is in the production, the words, the melodies and the feelings. It is in the studio where I make some sense of it all.”
Finding inspiration from personal tragedy
This time around, Hamdan has esteemed company. With acclaimed Syrian singer Lynn Adib, he has formed the low-key Arab indie group Bedouin Burger, and their music is as quirky as their name.
The duo have already released two wildly eclectic singles, the stirring Taht el Wared and the exuberant electro romp Ya Man Hawa. Despite the difference in styles and tempo, what binds these two songs is what appears to be emerging as Bedouin Burger's signature: the marriage of futuristic electronic sounds and classical Arab cultural elements, such as poetry and traditional percussion.
There is also something else: an often discreet tension that unsettlingly stirs beneath.
It is something Adib only noticed later on. "I realised when listening to the music, and this shows that it is totally an organic thing. That is what happens when you have two intense creatives coming together," she says. "Also, it is down to the present situation here in Lebanon. Creating art in this time is not a choice, but a matter of survival. It has obliged us to do this project and it has definitely focused our minds."
For Adib, the pull to create was triggered by personal trauma.
Taht el Wared, which translates to Beneath the Flowers, has Adib's ghostly vocals hovering over a production that begins minimally, before evolving into an arresting dabke-style hoedown.
The song was inspired, Adib says, by her late husband, Nicolas Zwierz, who died of cancer in 2017.
“The lyrics and melodies I actually wrote two years ago, when I went to Poland to visit my husband’s grave,” she says. “And I remember feeling so touched by the fact that he is alone there, lying beneath roses. So I wrote this song when I returned home and I wanted it to somehow sound like a celebration of this love we have.”
Focusing on what matters
For such sensitive material, Hamdan explains that his role as a producer and arranger is to simply get out of the way.
“When I hear Lynn’s voice I want to do nothing against it or compete with it,” he says. “What I try to do with the production is simply go around it. I want it to feel like a dress that is perfectly tailor-made for her. This is my focus as a producer: it’s all about the voice, the emotion and the composition.”
That no-frills approach is grounded in Hamdan’s trademark attitude of going against the grain.
“There is this movement currently of music producers over-orchestrating. It comes from this idea that they are in a studio and they have all these shiny toys and they want to use them,” he says. “I am not of that culture. In my studio, I only have a few things that I use with my laptop and one instrument. For me it’s not about the gear, it’s about the relationship.”
More than anything, this explains his success.
His collaborations over the years have been powerful because they have formed from deep-rooted friendships. They are not only about talent – when guests get into the studio with Hamdan they also need to click with him on a personal level.
“I have always used music as a pretext to meet people,” Hamdan says, with a chuckle. “And it has so far worked for me.”
That approach has naturally led him to new opportunities, such as a chance meeting with Adib in Lebanon last summer.
Hamdan recalls crossing paths with her at a small gathering in the home of fierce Syrian rockers Tanjaret Daghet, a group he has collaborated with in the past.
“The first five minutes and my jaw dropped. Lynn has this really deep powerful light. She is so funny and full of life. She shines,” he says. “The interesting thing is, after meeting her, I went home and listened to her music and I realised it was so mellow and intense. I loved this contrast and I thought, ‘Wow, this is exactly the kind of voice and emotion I want to work with.'”
A diary for the times
With two songs out in as many months, Adib says the duo have plenty of creative fuel to burn, with more tracks on the way.
Their future material may not all be pretty, but they say it will be honest. With the situation rapidly deteriorating in Lebanon, Adib says the present times demand nothing less than authenticity from its artists.
“I am realising there is an anxiety in our music. I feel that it is directly related to what is happening in Lebanon today,” she says. “That anxiety wouldn’t have been there if we were not worrying every day about our future and the future of our children. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing to say that we created this artwork during this time? We can say this music is our diary of what is happening in Lebanon.”