The Underground Resistance

Since the late-Nineties, Zeid Hamdan has been at the forefront of the Middle East’s alternative-music scene. Two decades on, he remains as passionate as ever about creating a new form of Arabic pop music 

Zeid Hamdan
Gigi Roccati
By Adam Grundey
Oct 06, 2013

AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY – before there was even an alternative-music scene in the Middle East to refer to as ‘nascent’ – Zeid Hamdan was living the dream: He’d formed an Arabic electro-pop band, Soapkills, with singer Yasmine Hamdan (no relation), and their trip-hop-influenced sound (kind of classical–Arabic-music-meets-Portishead) had caught the attention of a French record label, who took a chance and signed the Beirut-based duo. He was young, madly – and mutually – in love with Yasmine, and on the verge of realizing all of their shared ambitions. And then it all fell apart.

The French label went bankrupt, leaving Soapkills to negotiate with the French state to regain the master tapes of their recordings; a long and arduous process. Worse still, the couple had to return from Paris to Beirut; not too much of a hardship for Zeid, but for Yasmine, who had, he says, two dreams – “To be a singer, and to move to Europe” – it was a crushing blow.

“We were achieving one dream after another,” says Zeid, sitting in his Beirut recording studio. “Then, when the label went bankrupt, Yasmine saw herself failing. She had her family telling her she was doing something wrong; that music was not a good thing and that I was not a good person for her. [Returning to Lebanon] was like admitting defeat. It was a very hard blow. It killed the band.”

It also killed their relationship. “As soon as she was back, all she had in mind was getting back to Paris and living there,” he says. “Yasmine always felt that her fame and her career lay outside [Lebanon]. So she left. She didn’t wait. She left.”

For many artists, that would have been enough to send them looking for security – both financial and emotional – away from music. But in the decade since Soapkills dissolved, Zeid – as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and producer – has continued to make some of the Middle East’s most influential independent music, over a dizzying range of projects and genres, with bands including The New Government and Zeid and The Wings, as well as his Lebanese Underground website, establishing him as the ‘godfather’ of the region’s alternative scene and one of its most sought-after producers.

ZEID WAS BORN IN BEIRUT in 1976, shortly after the outbreak of civil war. His parents were well-off liberals. “My mother and father were an island of tolerance in a war environment,” he explains. “Outside, Christians were killing Muslims, Muslims were killing other Muslims, Jews were killing Christians, and in my house there was no mention of religion. They were loving parents; no divorce, no fights.”

Outside of the house, things weren’t so great. Zeid was a “very fat” kid, and he was ridiculed and bullied because of it. As a result, he was shy and withdrawn. So when his parents moved to France to escape the chaos of Lebanon when Zeid was 10 – losing most of their wealth in the process – it was an opportunity for a new start for their young son. And when he picked up a guitar shortly after arriving in Paris, it was transformative.

“When I was young, I wasn’t very comfortable with myself,” he says. “But music [he started off learning the songs his elder brother and sister used to listen to, by The Beatles, David Bowie, and Pixies, among others] gave me a lot of confidence, because, with a guitar, people paid attention to that. So it became a way of gaining acceptance, and then it completely absorbed me; it became a place where I just fantasized my world. It was my hideout. I used to imagine myself as Jim Morrison, or Paul McCartney, you know? I would fantasize that I was the most gorgeous being, living in harmony with my [imaginary] audience and the music.”

The relief and joy that music brought Zeid as a child is still evident today. While his boyhood fantasies of rock-god status never materialized – “I never enjoyed fame or huge crowds, I wasn’t able to buy a house, or a car, and I don’t have money in the bank” – creating his own songs, or, especially, collaborating with other artists, continues to bring its own rewards. With his soundtrack work for movies and (a select few) adverts, he manages to earn enough money to continue funding his numerous projects and productions, and avoids the fate of so many independent artists in the region – having to take a day job. “For me,” he says, “that doesn’t work. There’s this magic process: The more you feed your music, the more it feeds you.

“It’s never a job,” he continues. “I’m still having fun. I’m still playing. I’m not a rich person, but I have 19 albums behind me, and adventures, and adventures, and adventures.”

His attitude is greatly influenced by his parents, who – unlike those of many Arab musicians – have always supported his chosen career. He recognizes, however, that his case is unusual in the region. “In the Arab world, people tend to believe that money is the achievement,” he says, explaining why so many families don’t fully support a kid who chooses to pursue arts as a career. “But money doesn’t bring you anything. You can buy more stuff, but you won’t become a happier person or a better person. If those parents focused on what really helped their kids become happy, then maybe they would’ve brought up better kids and the generations that followed would’ve benefited from this mentality. But in the Arab world, it’s so much about money and power; so all the parents want their kids to be wealthy and powerful. Which is the sickest thing you can teach your children. You have to teach your kid how to be respectful, tolerant and how to emancipate into a happy person. You can’t guide them more than that.” It’s a subject he’s given a lot of thought to recently, since the birth of his son Abel three months ago (he describes fatherhood as “another level of happiness”). And he’s certain that his parents’ example is one he wants to follow.

“The thing is, I never had the hunger for wealth,” he continues. “For most of my childhood, I lacked nothing. And I grew up to be a man who’s not hungry for money. On the contrary, having traveled to very poor countries [he’s visited various African countries to teach independent music production on behalf of French NGOs], I’ve had the chance to appreciate the essential things. I’ve seen families who have nothing, but they’re respectable, happy people, without the comfort of wealth. So, I’m not hungry for wealth. I’m hungry for intense experiences. Elevating experiences. I just have a hunger for new music always. And only encounters can trigger that.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East, available at over 200 outlets in the UAE and GCC.

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