Profile on Zeid Hamdan: “A musician without vision is no use!”

Beats and Breath features this exclusive interview with Beirut-based musician, producer, composer, and arranger Zeid Hamdan, the pioneer of Lebanon’s alternative music scene. (Editor’s note: In the 2 years since this was published – it is still a relevant discussion of the future of alternative music in Lebanon.)

Zeid Hamdan (center) and his group – The New Government. ©Tanya Traboulsi

By JACKSON ALLERS

BEIRUT – Sitting in the confines of Torino (Express) – the bohemian stalwart of a bar in the east-Beirut, SoHo-like Gemayze district – I go through a mental preparation of what to ask Zeid Hamdan, the self-styled gardener of the Lebanese underground music scene.

For me, however, any preparation to interview Zeid Hamdan is less a technical exercise (“Who are your influences?” etc.), and more of a mutual exchange with questions drawn from the near 3 years I’ve known him and seen him work.

I remember the now legendary Mooz Records show (record label headed by Zeid at the time) at Luna park on Beirut’s seaside Corniche on May 22, 2006 – less than two months before the devastating 34-day Israeli onslaught of Lebanon.

I remember how thoroughly impressed I was by the talent (post-punk group Scrambled Eggs, rappers Rayess Bek, RGB, Siska, The New Government, and others), and I remember the air of euphoria at the possibilities of Lebanon’s burgeoning independent music scene. (Of course the 2006 war changed all of that.)

An 18-year veteran on the independent music scene in Beirut, Zeid has a mystique about him within the Lebanese cultural milieu.

Soap Kills

He’s one half of Soap Kills, the seminal electro-Arabic fusion act who’s other half Yasmine Hamdan was the voice of an entire generation of post-civil war youth in Beirut.

And while Soap Kills is technically defunct, with Yasmine Hamdan moving to Paris to reincarnate herself as Y.A.S. with French producer Mirwais (Madonna, Taxi Girl), Zeid has continued to cultivate alternative talent and support a wide range of artists from multiple musical genres – hip-hop (Katibe 5, RGB), alt rock (The New Government, Lumi, Scrambled Eggs), African artists from Guinea (Kandijha Kouyate, Macky Sow), and the Arabic electro-fusion project with Heba al Mansoury.

Since 2006, however, I’ve watched the independent music scene in Lebanon go through terrible growing pains – a music scene that Zeid Hamdan has never abandoned despite the assassinations, street battles, economic depression and general lack of understanding for independent music.

I caught up with Zeid in the lead up to a series of shows in the United States with his trio The New Government, and asked him about his current projects and what he expected from a revived underground music scene that is nurturing new talents like live hip-hop crew FareeQ al Atrash and the Arabic-fusion prog-rock act Mashrou3 Leila.

—————-

Zeid with his project the 3 Pigs ©

UMEN: Trace the evolution of the independent music scene here in Lebanon. When did it start?

ZEID HAMDAN: It started when the people started to have space in their mind for something else other than survival. When the city seemed to go into an era of peace. Let’s say 1993 or 1994. Then people started searching behind the ruins for something. A spirit. A vibe. Asking themselves: what is Lebanon today?

This is when the microscopic audience started to search, and an interest for something else other than what they were used to – the mainstream Arabic music that they had always listened to. So we can say that in the 90’s the Lebanese underground music started.

UMEN: Your own discovery of the alternative vibe musically – outside of this normal Arabic musical faire of Fairuz, and more alternatively Ziad Rahbani – all innovators in their own right, but your own personal exposure to the alternative music that you’ve cultivated here – when did you decide to start doing this?

ZEID: I grew up in Lebanon and when the civil war got really intense, our parents took us out of Lebanon – to France (Paris). I came back from France to Lebanon having grown up during my teenage years in France, influenced by European music.

So when I came back to Lebanon I wanted to do something Lebanese. I was proud in France that my specificity was Lebanese. And when I landed on Lebanese ground, I thought this is my specificity that I have been abroad and have been influenced by these Western acts.

As soon as I felt music and what I could share with the people I wanted it to be a new blend.

UMEN:  Was your first independent expedition into this idea of a musical hybrid – was that Soap Kills or was there a band or something that preceded it?

ZEID: There was one band before Soap Kills – it was a 7-piece band called Lombrix, and we did a CD. But it was a very cheaply produced album, and I was a teenager. So it wasn’t so good, but it had this blend of an Arabic and a touristic feel – and in English. And Yasmine Hamdan sang on this CD for like 30 secs. I had just met her.

The CD had such an impact locally because it was the first music offering of its kind.

UMEN: When was that?

ZEID: 1994. (Zeid came back in 1992 from France). It was like people were so hungry. ‘Oh a new band.’ ‘Oh. Hope!’ All the journalists got so excited because it was like some calling card – ‘Oh. Lebanon is back!’ And I felt like, ‘Oh my god. People love it! Maybe I should push it more.’

Ultimately, it was a bluff. You should hear the CD. Anyone abroad – people would hear it and just throw the CD in your face. But because of the situation here in Lebanon, I was encouraged to continue.

The musicians in this band Lombrix, they stopped. It wasn’t their career choice. But Yasmine and I wanted this as our career. So we formed Soap Kills – from this little EP by Lombrix.

UMEN: So that was 1994-1995?

ZEID: Yeah, 94-95′. And in 1996, we started seriously working on our music and in 1998 we got produced by Jihad Murr, who was/is the owner of Murr TV in Lebanon. And it was how the first step of Soap Kills began.

UMEN:  Fast forwarding. Soap Kills had a huge impact on an entire generation of independent music heads in Lebanon. As I came to Lebanon in 2006, it was Soap Kills’ albums that were first handed to me as a sort of offering from people I was meeting saying it was this group I needed to be listening to if was going to understand the alternative music scene and how it evolved here in Lebanon. Soap Kills went through an entire evolution as a group and affected people beyond this scene. Did you see that or did you know it was going to be so impacting?

ZEID: 10 years later I still don’t know what kind of impact we have had because locally, we are really unknown. It’s a certain circle of educated people that know us and for who we perform.

Soap Kills first started getting noticed because of video clips on M(urr)TV. But as soon as we started to make our music sound more Arabic, we were just kicked out of the media. We became really underground. The radio stations would say, ‘No we can’t play it. It doesn’t resemble anything.’

So no. Soap Kills doesn’t have the impact that you think it has. But throughout the years, it has spread. It is a music that people are now discovering and it is having a certain impact. They are surprised that it’s old. They are now tolerant to it.

I’ heard Soap Kills recently on Radio One here in Beirut. Imagine that ten years later?

UMEN: Why do you think there’s a lack of entrepreneurial backing for this alternative music scene? Why haven’t more independent labels sprung up to break new ground? Let’s not talk about Icognito – the label you were associated with…elsewhere I mean?

ZEID: It’s very normal. The equation is simple: a society opens up to art when it has cleared many of its own issues. Then while the society finds time, it starts feeding from knowledge.

Lebanon is not at that stage. It thinks it’s out of conflict. And so people are more tolerant and they’ve started to look and see and search. They have a sense of curiosity. And this is only for Lebanon, but the whole Middle East.

We are in a very conflicted space here – a very unstable environment. This is not the ground for curiosity and tolerance. Societies that have known peace for more than 2 or 3 decades open up to the treasures of their own society.

That’s not the case here. We’re still struggling, but people are saying now that we are in what appears to be a temporary peaceful era – and their first inclination is to make quick, easy money. Easy money. Easy food. Easy culture. Easy everything.

At a certain point this will fall, and people will look for the particulars of their society and they will find US and the other artists that are particular – artistically. This is where they will find inspiration and money.

UMEN: Let’s talk about Zeid’s personal projects. You have the punk/prog-rock group The New Government – but give us an overview of the things you’re doing.

ZEID: Well, let me deal with it like this. I’m like a gardener. I know how to grow some particular vegetables, and each kind has a tempo and a certain environment to grow in.

The New Government is something I’ve worked a lot on throughout the years. And it has triggered something now – a great opportunity. But it’s difficult because two of the three members are elsewhere (in France). But each time we reunite something big happens for us.

So it’s a project that I’m developing with Timothée and Jeremie Regnier. It’s a project I believe in. It is rock but it is very melodic. It has an edge and is reminiscent of elements of The Beatles, Beach Boys and the Pixies. But it is really original at the same time. It feeds me and is my inspiration so I go for it.

The New Government just signed with a publisher in the US in January. State One – the publisher of Bob Marley, Sheryl Crow, Evanescence, the list goes on.

So this will help us step forward. We worked well here in Beirut and in Paris we blew up. And now it puts us somewhere else…again.

Then there is my Arabic fusion work. Yasmine Hamdan opened my ears to Arabic music. And living in Beirut, I always feel there is nothing for the Arab youth. So I feel a calling to translate this Arabic music to a more contemporary setting. I have to do it.

So I wrote some songs and adapted some classics with a young Lebanese singer – Hiba – that was really untypical as a singer. People said not to work with her. But for two years I developed something with her until Jihad al Murr signed her. So now there’s some new Arabic music that can be exposed, but it doesn’t take away all of my time – even though I produce Hiba and work with her – I still have time to tend to the other elements of my garden – if you like.

I work with African artists, and this is based on the fact that there’s not enough collaboration, not enough color with the music. And I had great opportunities to play in Africa and to meet African artists.

Zeid with Guinean musician Kandjha Kouyate

I produced one called Kandjha (Kouyate) and I signed to management another one called Maki – from Guinea. Now Kandjha is touring France and we’re doing great. And Maki got signed by Ibrahim Maulouf, a great Lebanese-French artist, and he’s going to tour with him in France.

We are booked for Montreal with Kanjia, and we are trying to bring him here to Lebanon. This is my main goal – that we are trying to have these Lebanese artists see these African artists.

Then a third thing I am doing here – because a lot of musicians are encouraging me to do my own music and are encouraging me to sing – I always collaborate with artists and push their singers. Everyone is telling me – do your own songs and sing – hence the group, Zeid and The Wings was born.

I did a Facebook announcement for open try-outs for back vocals. We did 10 days of auditions and met incredible artists. I selected two singers – that are the wings. It’s spreading now and other artists are helping me form a band. It will end up as a big band because there’s not this big band feel here.

I’m going to harvest this in the fall, but there’s always a sense of trying to get Yasmine Hamdan back. It’s hard because she’s searching her own way. We’re all searching our own way. But Soap Kills is growing, as I said, and with time I’m sure she’ll be convinced that there’ll be something to continue here in Beirut.

UMEN: I guess Yasmine left because of the lack of ‘space’ – as we were saying earlier – the lack of opportunities here in Beirut in the past. Do you see that space is opening up for artists that have been abroad to come back?

ZEID: It’s cheaper here to work. There’s all the equipment. Beirut is a nice place to develop, although it’s not a nice place to show the world because it is very narrow and small. But it’s a very beautiful playground here. You can experiment with the music. Arrange it. Think. It’s a small society.

So I encourage my musicians that have gone abroad, to come back and work because I am showing them that I am working. There is space there is work. There just needs to be faith in it and a vision because a musician without a vision is no use.

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7 thoughts on “Profile on Zeid Hamdan: “A musician without vision is no use!”

  1. Hi Jackson
    Big tnx for this interesting interview.
    It gives a good view about the music scene in Lebanon and it’s difficulties.
    It remined a bit the Israeli music scene

    Cheers from Tel Aviv
    EatLiz

  2. I recently visited Beirut for a couple of days.
    We found a nice bar for afternoon refreshments (‘Chalies Bar’)and was kindly given a compelation disc with the General Suliman track. I played it to the folks back home and they loved it. There are some other great tracks on the CD…… where the F**K is my heel!!. If anyone is passing Chalies bar…please say hi to Sammar and her sister who were great company.

  3. Reblogged this on Beats and Breath and commented:

    As Lebanese independent music pioneer Zeid Hamdan prepares for a long-awaited performance with African Harpist/Kora player, Kandjha Kouyate (Guinea) in Beirut on May 17, met Lebanese producer Zeid Hamdan, Beats and Breath has chosen to reblog this post that, while four years old, is equally relevant to discussions of the future of the independent Arab music scene – particularly as the Arab uprisings have opened up an unprecedented space for artistic expression in the Middle East and North Africa. Enjoy!

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