Album Review: Yasmine Hamdan – Al Jamilat [Crammed Discs, 17th March 2017]

Listening to music in a language unknown is always a new experience. Not understanding the words we hear, could sometimes feel like we’re missing out on an essential part of the artist’s work, yet in some cases, this language barrier makes room for free, unexpected interpretation; allowing the listener to perceive the voice as one instrument in a larger orchestra.

This was the feeling while listening to Yasmine Hamdan’s new album Al Jamilat. Not knowing a word of Arabic seemed like an obstacle at first, yet her voice, and the cultural legacy that it carries, naturally drew me into her music deeper than expected. Her singing is expressive in endless ways, soft and sensual at times, harder and more dramatic at others.

The Lebanese singer-songwriter – previously fronting the first indie-electronic Beirut duo SoapKills – is considered an icon of underground music in the Arab world. Now, with her second solo album, she has managed to blend the heritage of Arab tradition with Western contemporary sounds, from electronica, to pop and folk.

Right at the beginning of the album comes one of the best-arranged tracks, La Ba’den. A soft, dreamy atmosphere, her featherlike voice and string melodies combine to convey a beautiful sense of lightness and introspection. The music flows seamlessly into the next track Assi, a living, organic composition in which the first two minutes make an intriguing soundtrack, slowly building up into sonic climax before exploding only at the very last minute of the track.

Hamdan’s voice is the primary vehicle of the Arab heritage that permeates the entire album, accompanied by the tablas, lutes and strings, echoing Middle-Eastern sound textures.

All these elements emerge powerfully in tracks like “Balad” and “Al Jamilad” – a song based on a poem by Palestinian author Mahmoud Darwish that celebrates women in their diversity and beauty.

Thanks to collaborations with UK producers Luke Smith (Depeche Mode, Foals, Lily Allen) and Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Carl Barät), this album never falls short of contemporary sounds and influences. Track number six, “Cafe”, is probably the best example of this blend – sampled lute riffs add one to another until they meet a powerful electronic rhythmic base that nods to trip hop and contemporary electronica.

Throughout 40 minutes of listening, the mood swings significantly from sensual, light atmospheres to darker, dramatic shades, peaking in the closing track “Ta3ala” where cellos and synths meet Hamdan’s voice in a breathtaking performance. Without losing a sense of cohesion in sound and style, this album naturally draws the whole broad spectrum of human emotions at once.

It was only after several listenings – Hamdan’s music completely captured me by then – when I found the lyrics translated online, reading them opened a whole new level of understanding for her art. But I am glad it went this way. Had I understood immediately the content of her lyrics, my experience would have been different, perhaps more focused on the message rather than the whole. For now, all you need to know is that the title translates as “The beautiful ones”, like all the tracks on this wonderful album. The rest is for you to discover.