Entering the Great American Music Hall, I was welcomed with friendly Arab faces and the soothing choral hymn of a number of Arabic dialects being spoken. With this being one of Yasmine Hamdan’s first times touring the United States, all were excited to see her and listen to the music she has to offer. Notwithstanding the flowing alcohol and roaring laughter, a lingering anxiety permeated over the room. Recent events, such as shootings and aggravations against Arabs, left me and other Middle Easterners in the crowd somewhat distressed. Would hate push someone far enough today?
Moreover, misgivings regarding the Lebanese political situation hung over the crowd and was the topic of an number of overheard conversations. A war in Lebanon? Again? But, when Yasmine Hamdan walked on stage, tensions in the crowd waned as apprehensions were forgotten for just a moment. With two mics on stage and a simple band set up, Hamdan quickly stepped behind the first mic, which distorted her voice, singing alongside a steady Arab beat brought by her French drummer, guitar player, and synth and beat player. Although the crowd felt a little awkward at first, they warmed up to Hamdan’s rhythmic lyrics and the stories that followed them.
Switching between Arabic and English, Hamdan introduced her song “Azza,” which follows the story of a woman rejecting a man’s advances, by saying “the Middle East has a lot of Harvey Weinstein’s!” Furthermore, right before the song started, Hamdan brought one of her two guests onto the stage, a young man who played the Tabla alongside her drummer. All smiling and increasing the speed of their beat, the band supported Hamdan on her trip through her discography. She performed songs such as “Beirut” from her Album Ya Nass (2014) which speaks to the essence of the city, what it has lost, and what it has to offer. Asking the crowd to settle for this calmer song, Hamdan sang this ballad to Beirut, allowing the anxiety in her voice to give way as the crowd contemplated the threat of war which looms over her country. Moving outside her discography, Hamdan welcomed the singer Sierra Casady from the band CocoRosie to perform a new, never before performed song, that elegantly mixed Casady’s operatic singing with Hamdan’s elongated Arabic style.
With her numerous guests and constant conversations with the crowd, Hamdan offered a riveting and exciting performance that celebrated and encouraged the expression of the Arab identity. Acting as a space free of weird looks, stares, or questions for speaking Arabic, crowd members openly spoke to each other in the language, as well as to Hamdan asking her at one point to speak more Arabic instead of English. Hamdan, standing close to the audience, obliged, using the language as an empowering device both for the crowd and her music’s message. Resonating in the open space of the Great American Music Hall, Hamdan’s music offered a short respite from the anxieties of current political contexts and used the simplicity of her band to heighten the socio-political complexity of her music.
Written by Michael Elsanadi
Photos by Camilia Kacimi