I do my job because I like meeting people.– ZEID HAMDAN
Since the end of the 90’s, Lebanese musician and producer Zeid Hamdan has placed human beings and his taste for exchange at the heart of his artistic projects. From his beginnings with the now-cult band Soapkills to his current projects, Zeid Hamdan is focused, through his encounters, on making women‘s voices heard, and on combining passion of musical creation with his commitment.
Over a cup of coffee, he tells us about his entry into the world of music, about the way he cultivates the pleasure of sound, as well as his current thoughts about the situation of artists, in Lebanon and elsewhere.
• Hello Zeid ! First of all, we would like to know more about your background. How did you get into the music world ? Was this art already present in your family ?
Not at all ! There are no musicians or singers in my family. I would say that what introduced me to music was the Norwegian music band A-ha. My sister was a big fan of Morten Harket [the band’s leader], she used to hang his posters all over her room.
And I, the insecure little brother, saw my sister in admiration of him. I thought that the power of fascination that artists can have on people was a crazy thing !
It made me want to play music. I asked my parents for an electric guitar and I learned to play by myself, by ear. When you learn by ear, you don’t play covers very well, so I started to invent my own songs when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I lacked the technique, so I had to create things that I could play. Composing with my guitar really became an obsession, I was practicing by myself all the time.
• Who were your favorite artists at that time ?
Apart from A-ha, my youth was really influenced by the Beatles, David Bowie, the Doors, Pink Floyd…. Then, when I arrived in France at the age of 10, I discovered Radio Nova, Rapattitude, Tonton David, NTM, IAM, MC Solaar, but also the beginnings of electronic music with Björk, or even Radiohead and Depeche Mode also.
In France, I also discovered Serge Gainsbourg, Alain Bashung, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré. Each time I immersed myself in the universe of these artists, I learned everything by heart. I discovered the richness of the French language, and that fascinated me.
In 1992, I came back to Lebanon with my head full of these European cultural references, but with a strange feeling of questioning my own belonging. I was 16 years old, I was in search of an identity, and my parents didn’t listen to Lebanese music, or Arabic music in general. They rather liked Italian music from the seventies !
• At the end of the 90’s, you founded with Yasmine Hamdan your first band, Soapkills, which then had a huge echo in Lebanon, but also well beyond its borders. In which context was this group created ?
When I returned to Lebanon, I met a girl I fell deeply in love with : it was Yasmine. She grew up in a family of intellectuals who, unlike mine, listened to a lot of Lebanese music at home, especially Rahbani, Fairouz or Sabah.
And I came with my long hair, Pink Floyd and the Doors (laughs). I didn’t even know the songs she was singing to me at that time, I really discovered them through her voice.
With Yasmine and my cousins, we decided to start a first band, which was called The Lombrics – because we played in a pigsty with earthworms on the floor ! Yasmine sang in English, not in Arabic. I brought Yasmine the Anglo-Saxon side, and she brought me all her musical background.
Once everyone went back to their studies, Yasmine and I found ourselves wanting to continue making music, and wondering how we could replace the other members of the group. At the local music store, I bought a rhythm box, the MC-303.
I replaced the drummer and the bass player in a very minimal way, and it gave something that people really liked – « the revolution of Arab electro« as people say now afterwards ! (laughs)
We started playing in cafes, and it was very cool because it was new, there hadn’t been any Arabic music mixed with electronics yet. It was beautiful, even if it was clumsy and lacked technique. What interested me the most was to hear Yasmine’s voice, which was very raw. We were in full exploration. There were no computers or software at the time.
• What memories do you have of this period ?
It was a wonderful time. Soapkills was not only my musical school, but also a school for human relations. I learned how to respect human beings, how to listen to them, how not to hurt them, how to calm the ego and how to stop always wanting to be right. That’s what allows you to create better.
These are also lessons that you apply to everything else. My relationship with Yasmine taught me a lot, and that’s what allowed me to work with many artists after her.
• While you are often nicknamed the « Pope of Middle East underground music », what is your relationship to success ?
I’ve never felt success, I’ve always been a step behind it. A lot of the artists I worked with went on to sign with big production companies.
I was always betting on people who were a little bit clumsy at first, who were just starting out – and I was with them until they were « picked up ». I never saw myself as a producer, signing people and promising them things.
• You indeed have produced and worked with many different artists and projects during your career. How were these collaborations usually initiated ?
After working with Yasmine, I did « Ahwak« , the global track with the Kuwaiti artist Hiba Mansouri. I then worked with many different artists, like the Egyptian artists Maryam Saleh and then Maii Waleed. In fact, each of these projects consist of researches, experimentations, and mostly great friendships.
I have an entire hard disk drive full of music that hasn’t been released yet. What I love is capturing moments. All these songs are emotional memories – sound memory is too often overlooked. I really make music for passion, for the encounters and for the pleasure of having an artistic exchange. These are always beautiful moments of sharing.
• Do you come to these artists with ideas in mind, or does the music emerge from the moment you meet ?
Today, when I meet an artist, he usually has an idea already of what I do or have done in the past. I come with a background, but I try to listen as much as possible to the tastes and desires of the other to find a direction together. Sometimes, it is the other artist who has ideas and needs direction, and other times they have a desire and know how to lead me. Lynn Adib for example, with whom we created Bedouin Burger, has a huge musical background, very jazzy. I make suggestions to her, and we find a common ground.
When I meet someone, I try as much as possible not to have a preconceived idea. I try to be a blank page, to deconstruct my experience in order to be ready for a mutual exchange. If you want to work with artists, you have to be ready to learn with them, you have to be guided, even sometimes by people who don’t know where they are going. Even if you mess up, it’s nice ! (laughs).
• Which artists particularly inspire you at the moment ?
Right now I’m hanging out with Arat Kilo, who are experimenting with Mali, Afghanistan, and who are very cool and inspiring.
I have a young producer in my studio who makes Syrian electronic dabke, Wael Alkak, who is also very inspiring.
I also like very much the American artist of Ghanaian origin Moses Sumney. He is a bass player who sings very high, and I especially like his song « Don’t bother calling« , I learned how to play and sing it !
I also like the South African band Die Antwoord, they have a very visual universe and I like the idea of female-male duet, it always interests me a lot !
• You produced the music of the movie Capharnaum, directed by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. What is your relationship with cinema, or even with video in general ?
I’ve been doing a lot of film music for over ten years. My first fantasy was to become a film director, I’ve loved filming for a long time – since I started making music !
In fact, I love anything creative. For my project right now with Lynn, for example, we want to do everything ourselves, including the visuals and clips.
• You also often do lives on Instagram, combining music and video. Is it important for you to share music while being close to your audience ?
Yes, and it was even more important during the lockdown when we were all under pressure. Between the revolution and the explosion in Lebanon, then the arrival in France, we lived through physical human trials, and I needed to sing.
It was a real need, because I wanted to feel that there were people listening. I really like the live format, it allows me to connect directly with people, because I really do make music for them.
• Do you think that Lebanese artists support each other in France ?
Yes, we support each other. For example, we played many times to send someone abroad, or to collect money to help a label in difficulty because of the crisis.
We did a lot of charity work, especially in the last two years. We support each other, and at the same time we are so few !
• How is the music industry in Lebanon today ?
There were small bumps in the years of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, before he was assassinated in 2005, and then it went down. Whether it’s the 2006 war or something else, there are always events that break the cultural scene, and cause exodus. Each time, everything gets destroyed again.
In fact, even in France today, music economy is in a perpetual state of redefinition. The means of music distribution are evolving, as for example recently with TikTok. One can wonder how labels will adapt to this new situation.
Now imagine this in Lebanon, where there is no copyright to protect artists yet, and where there is real corruption. The situation is critical today for the Lebanese scene, three quarters of the artists are leaving and those who remain are struggling very hard.
• How do you see the years to come ?
Artists are going through a very dark period in our history – globally, not only in Lebanon. They are more and more lonely, working in their own rooms, because there is less funding available to carry out joint projects.
Despite this, we must remain creative and continue to invent… without this feeling, we would die ! Human species dies if it is not in a state of discomfort. We must question ourselves and reflect. And the greatest challenge of our time is to think with everyone, for everyone.
• And rightly so, you launched in 2020 a new project called Bedouin Burger, with Syrian singer Lynn Adib. How did you meet ? When will we be able to listen to the first album ?
We met in Beirut in 2018 at the house of Syrian musician friends, the band Tanjaret Daghet, and it was really friendship at first sight ! I immediately loved her energy.
When she came back the following summer, we never let go of each other, we became the best friends in the world ! I introduced her to all the people I knew, and we worked on a film score with the composer Khaled Mouzanar.
We spent all our confinement and the Lebanese revolution in the basement of my studio, making videos, playing with a green screen, dressing up and singing, we were completely crazy !
We released two songs, and then there was the explosion in Beirut. I found myself in Turkey, and she in France. We were lucky to have a production contract right away. Then we met again in Paris, and we continued to work.
Our album is now finished ! Every month and a half, a song will be released. Our first single « Dabkeh » was released on February 12th !
• What other projects are you working on at the same time ?
I love female voices. We live in a world, especially the Arab world, where female voices are crushed. So I like it when a girl takes the microphone, it suggests rebellion and fulfillment. I like it when artists write and express themselves freely.
I recently met Jeanne [@leschansonsdejeanne] through Instagram. On her account, she had posted a cover of Maii Waleed. At the same time, I discovered the visual universe of Celine [@celinatique], who also happens to be a singer! We play together, we do photos and concerts. It’s exciting !
I’m also doing film scores, including one for a feature film by French-Lebanese director Wissam Charaf.
And in March, I’m going to Guinea to produce an artist I spotted more than 10 years ago ! His name is Macki, he composes, he’s a guitarist and singer, and he’s super talented.
IN THE SPIRIT OF ZEID HAMDAN
Inspiring works, ideas and words
A film ? Human by Yann Arthus Bertrand (2015).
The faces are so well filmed and the stories so moving !
A book ? Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.
A book that opened my eyes and inspired me.
A painting – an artist ? Pierre Soulages.
For the calm and the grandeur of his works.
A song ? Don’t bother calling, Moses Sumney.
An instrument ? The Yamaha guitarlele.
Very light, I can take it everywhere! I also play live with it.
A picture ? The one of the current Lebanese government.
It really embodies what is the most evil and hateful in humanity. In Lebanon, there is not a single ministry that isn’t riddled with corruption.
A dish ? Misr wet injara.
It’s an Ethiopian dish that my wife introduced to me, and it colors my life.
A word ? Beit (house in Arabic).
It represents the place where one finds one’s loved ones, the security. It is what you have lost physically but can find in any country, depending on the people you are sitting with.
A place ? Awash National Park in Ethiopia.
I spent a week there with my wife and son, and I was perhaps the happiest I have ever been. It’s the farthest and closest to everything at the same time.