Zeid Hamdan: ‘My disappointment comes from a lack of innovation’

The Arabic alternative music legend behind Soapkills and The New Government, speaks out about the state of the region today and it's music.

Zeid Hamdan performs with The New Government in Paris in 2010. Photo by Caroline Fitte Lange
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The first line of anything you read about Zeid Hamdan is likely to point out that he is a “legend” of the Middle East’s alternative music scene. As much as I love novelty, there seems no way to avoid this cliché.

With more than 20 albums and EPs under his belt, the 39-year-old’s work speaks for itself.

SoapKills – the Arabic-language trip-hop duo he formed with Yasmine Hamdan – have become retrospective cult heroes. Exhibit A: the European release in June of The Best of Soapkills is a collection of material from their three albums released between 2001 and 2005.

Similar respect is heaped on The New Government, the controversial, frequently anti-establishment, English-language punk-rock band Hamdan led from 2004.

And as a collaborator and producer, he is behind more than a dozen releases for regional talents including Malian kora player Kandia Kouyaté, Lebanon's Hiba Mansouri and Egyptian singers Maii Waleed and Maryam Saleh. Hamdan and Saleh will release a new album as a duo, the electro and dub-influenced Halawella on September 17.

In 2010, Hamdan founded Zeid and the Wings, the outfit he brought to his UAE solo debut on August 29. It was a special evening: performing at Dubai’s And Lounge for The Other Side, Hamdan led his band through an epic, emotional performance, in front of a packed, sweaty crowd, his two sets followed by two encores.

Is it difficult to find things to write about after close to 20 years of making music?

No. We cross so many adventures in our region, our background changes so much where we can go, that there are so many stories to sing.

Personal or political stories?

Both – they’re all linked. For example, four years ago, I could travel through Syria and perform in Amman. Today, I can’t do that anymore – Syria is closed to the whole world. Egypt is not so stable, a lot of terrorism. All those transformations. Lebanon is now an unstable place because of ongoing corruption.

The recent “rubbish marches”?

The rubbish is just the tip of iceberg. But it’s triggering protests – we don’t know what will be next. All these things make you go through intense experiences and affect your personal life also, and this mixture allows you to always find inspiration.

Do you think regional acts have a responsibility to sing about such things?

I think some artists are in a little bubble, and they just express very personal things, which is not bad – but with a good chorus you can teach a good lesson. My personal way of expressing my opinion towards my environment is writing about it. We need that in this region because we have a big problem with religious and political intolerance. Art should address this, it should reflect the people.

Are you more scared to speak your mind with your music, following your arrest in 2011 for defaming your country’s president with the song General Suleiman?

No, not at all. It wasn’t scary. I was in prison for one day. In Syria, a singer was assassinated and thrown in the river for talking against the government. Compared to this, what happened to me was a joke.

You seem disappointed more acts don’t speak up.

My disappointment comes from a lack of innovation. There is this wave of music that copies a lot of bands we’ve heard before. A lot of them sing in English, and if their music was on a playlist, you would never know they were from the Arab world. So where’s the talent? Today, The Wanton Bishops are heading “the underground” – but they’re a product. It’s just a copy, a Lebanese transposition of something that exists. I love [frontman] Nader [Mansour], but I can’t listen to his CD. It resembles an advert for American scotch, or Harley Davidson.

Do you think it’s important for acts to sing in Arabic?

It’s wonderful when you can listen to an Arabic song and not make the effort as if you are eating Indian food. In the beginning with Soap Kills we tried English – but then we said, “This is ridiculous, how can we express in English who we are?” We had this identity, this bigger question, and we weren’t able to express that.

Do you feel the reputation of Soapkills is a weight around your neck?

It’s a big weight because a lot of people come to me and say, “Man, this was so great, you never reached this afterwards”. But I’m not worried because a lot of my projects take 10 years to reach their audience. Ten years ago I was doing Soapkills and no one was appreciating it. Songs I wrote four years ago were played yesterday in [Beirut’s] Martyrs’ Square during the demonstrations. It takes time, because you’re never the cool thing.

Some people would say you are the cool thing.

I am the cool thing with Soapkills in Europe, because Crammed Disc signed our catalogue and released it. And today a lot of the Arab crowd is realising: “Oh, this band was cool”. But they forget that at the time we were not treated well at all, that’s why [co-founder] Yasmine left [Lebanon] as soon as she could. Today we are the cool thing, but we were never the cool thing at the time.

What do you think of Yasmine’s solo work?

I respect Yasmine so much for the road she’s on – I know how much she suffered to reach a deal and get there – although I’m not a fan of her new music. I think if I could work with her again, I would create another great piece of music – but I would have to direct her.

Of all your ongoing projects, which are you most excited about now?

Maryam Saleh and Maii Waleed – they’re both so interesting because they are female artists in the Arab world, struggling to impose a sound and a style. That’s why I now focus more on them than my own career – they carry for me the hope of this new Arab music.

Maryam Saleh & Zeid Hamdan's album Halawela will be available from September 17 on iTunes