Arab alternative singer finds inspiration in taxi rides

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Story highlights

  • Yasmine Hamdan is an icon of underground music across the Arab world
  • She says a number of her songs are inspired by conversations during Beirut taxi rides

(CNN)In Beirut, that bustling Lebanese capital that continues to live in the shadows of a 15-year civil war, communities are still segregated, distrustful and divided over many fault lines that only taxi drivers can dare to cross.

In the backseat of one of those green or navy old Mercedes-Benz taxis sits singer and songwriter Yasmine Hamdan, listening to the driver's tales from Beirut's diverse neighborhoods, engaging in serious and not so serious political discussions, and taking notes of those amusing statements that transpire in the rickety car.
An icon of underground music across the Arab world, 40-year-old Hamdan says that a number of her alternative electro-pop songs are inspired by those taxi rides.
    Yasmine Hamdan performs at Cafe de la Danse in Paris on May 20, 2014.
    "When I go to Beirut I don't drive. It's traumatizing to drive there," the Paris-based Lebanese-born artist told CNN at the backstage of her performance in Dubai this month.
    "In the Arab world, people don't mix much. Taxi drivers have all kinds of people getting in their cars. So they give a sense of the city and its vibes," she says. And one of her songs in her upcoming album is about a driver talking about corruption "in a poetic way."
    "(The taxi driver) is not nagging. He expresses himself in a way to create hope even if he's hopeless. His sentences invite for a change. Change means resistance and resistance means transformation and igniting energies."
    Hamdan was born in 1976, one year into Lebanon's war, which pitted a multi-sectarian population against each other, and led to the destruction of the country's infrastructure. In 1997, at a time when Lebanon was still trying to heal its wounds, Hamdan -- then a teenager yearning to vent her anger and express herself -- joined Soapkills, an underground electronic band that was dubbed the first of its kind in the Arab World.
    "People were not ready (for us) at all and things were not easy, but it was thrilling. It was vital for me to imagine a different world," Hamdan recalls.
    "When I look at it now, it was crazy. There were no venues, no bands and no audience ready for us. But when we started, we ignited something. We tried to open many doors. A lot of them were closed."
    Growing up in a post-war country, in a family where she was expected to have a more planned and prestigious future, with a secular father and a mother on the conservative side who both thought their daughter was lost, Hamdan felt she needed to leave that increasingly claustrophobic setting and break away from the many conflicts she was having back home.
    "I had the urge to face my own limitation and I needed to be bigger. I needed to be more professional and be in a more competitive environment because I wanted to grow as an artist. That's why I went to Europe," she says.
    But despite leaving her turbulent region, Hamdan says her heart is still in the Middle East and many of her songs are inspired by characters from there.
    "Many of my characters are feminine. They are strong and they are free; they are also imperfect; they are manipulative and complex characters. These characters can be three words in the song, but it's an attitude -- it's what I build in my head."
    She draws from the attitude of Arab women singers from the middle of the 20th century, a period in the history of the Middle East that many see as a time of freedom and emancipation. One particular woman, legendary Syrian singer Asmahan (1912-1944) influenced Hamdan in her decision to embrace traditional Arabic music and give it a modern twist when she opted for going solo and released her first album, "Ya Nass" ("You People") in 2013.
    Four years on, she is releasing a new album, expected to be out in the spring, titled "Al Jamilat" ("The Beautiful Women"), which is also the name of a famous poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
    "It's about women who are in love. They are a little bit strong but a little bit fragile, they are always in contradiction, Their identity is always in contradiction. They are rebellious but they also want to be protected. Always in the middle (swiveling between) yes and no."
    She concedes that, as an Arab woman, singing is part of a journey to become a freer person, but she says would never aim to be "the woman who wants to liberate other women."
    "I do not want to embody something or portray (realities in) black and white or that you are wrong and I am right," she says. "You do not start by working on society, you start by yourself to be a freer person and a more independent person."