Credits: Zeid Hamdan playing his guitar – Photo Courtesy of Sachyn Mital
Foreword: I met Zeid Hamdan by pure coincidence as I was volunteering at a French music festival in Paris. Looking at the line-up, I noticed a Middle Eastern duo called Bedouin Burger and after researching them, discovered that the musician Zeid Hamdan, was the same artist from Soapkills, the band with the talented Yasmine Hamdan. My research showed that Zeid was one of the precursors of underground music in Lebanon, and that he used his music as a tool to describe Lebanese society, events, and politics through emotions and revolution. I reached out to him for an interview and finally met up in his studio in the suburbs of Paris. In the little room, four guitars are standing, two or three pianos are placed, and music equipment is arranged. Sitting on the couch, we started our conversation talking about Lebanon, just like any Lebanese abroad do.
It all began when Zeid was a child in the 70s. Describing himself as “chubby and uncomfortable” with [him]self, Zeid was a reserved child. Meanwhile, he noticed his sister’s fascination with Morten Harket, a Norwegian musician, from the band A-Ha. Seeing the effect that artists like the latter had on people, he later decided to follow his steps and become an artist, thinking it would help him overcome his lack of self-confidence.
One Christmas, Hamdan asked for a guitar. He didn’t know how to play the instrument, and instead began teaching himself. “I was very bad at guitar and didn’t have the technique to cover artists’ songs so I created my own music by accident. I would become lost in my own bubble” Hamdan reminisces of his beginnings. “I used to be seized by the music, and by the fact that with a string and lyrics, you can just create a world of your own.”
When he talks about music, Zeid is fiercely passionate. For him, writing, composing, and playing for others is a means of expressing emotions. He formed his first band, Lombrix, with his cousins and they started out playing in front of their friends. Soon enough, the crowd became bigger and bigger and they went from performing at home to playing in bars and pubs in Beirut. “It was something very simple, very naive, but fun”.
One day, his friend connected him to someone who had a production house and they helped Zeid and his band record an EP. They asked a girl that was in school with their friend’s sister to sing along with them, as a guest, on their CD. It was none other than fellow Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan.
The release of their first EP made a lot of noise in Beirut, because they were the first band to create post-war oriental style music. Few months later, Lombrix became Soapkills and their first song, Lost, was released on MTV Music.
Credits: Lost by Soap Kills
Composing music with revolutionary undertones
Opening with such an impactful quote, the song is filled with dainty symbolism. Throughout the music video, we see Yasmine putting soap everywhere: in the schools, on the cars, on the sidewalk… Zeid explains that “this act was very relevant to what we were experiencing at the time. We were feeling the chaos and corruption resulting from the war. Soapkills was highlighting the fact that we are now cleaning up the remnants of the war, hastily building while not having digested its causes. When a part of the human body is infected, you cannot make the infection disappear with soap: you have to look for its cause and then cure it on a level deeper than its symptoms. Soapkills was the word that described the quick fix – the surface level solutions. At the end of the video, she [Yasmine] goes back to where she landed and the consequence of the quick fix was the blast.”
“Throughout all this period, our songs are always addressing chaos and corruption.”
Hamdan’s passion is not only limited to composing songs, but also “allowing people to hear ideas and lyrics in a way that is not aggressive”. Using the power of music and art, he makes people think about politics more than they would listening to a political speech. Having revolutionary ideas himself, the musician just wants to spread powerful messages through music. “Music is power, especially when people don’t have the power to fight otherwise”. He believes a message conveying an emotion through music can generate movement and a revolution is often the result of the latter. By triggering a feeling, we can provoke thinking and suggest an idea and a call-to-action”. This is reflected in his song, General Suleiman, which he wrote and performed with his band Zeid and the Wings. Former President Michel Suleiman, in his so-called hunt for Islamists, destroyed the Palestinian camp of Nahr El Bared, and then used this act as self-promotion in order to reach the presidency. The song thus criticized this man – who was considered a hero by many – as he was actually harming the country and its inhabitants. It moved both the country and the government in 2011, albeit in different directions. As a result, Lebanese authorities detained Zeid for 24 hours on the basis of defaming the President.
Credits: General Suleiman by Zeid and The Wings
However, after the events that made the country fall into crisis, inspiration arose. But even if the words come out , on this specific occasion, expressing them can be too soon. “Especially after the blast, we needed to watch what happened, digest it, and take the time to mourn”.
Powerful women artists as a source of inspiration
Throughout his long career, Zeid met a variety of talented artists. The guitarist finds himself especially impacted by his female coworkers, and their talent, beauty, and courage. Yasmine Hamdan is the first of those examples. As they were only teenagers, he recalls how the connection was “so pure, beautiful, innocent and passionate because we started playing the rockstars at our own level”.
Hearing about Yasmine’s life experiences and those of the women around him, he discovered the issues they faced, especially in the art world. While it was easier for him because he was encouraged to follow his passion, he saw how Yasmine was discouraged to follow the same path because of her gender. Zeid found himself magnetically pulled to strong female artists, seeing Yasmine and fellow women discouraged from following their passion in music as “rare flowers growing against the environment that does not favor them”.
Women’s courage to fight patriarchal mentalities inspires him, as they use the vulnerability of what music is to emancipate themselves. “Female artists in the Arab world are often considered dishonorable”, says Zeid. As a result, he started working increasingly with women.
Following Yasmine, Zeid worked with Hiba Mansouri, a Syrian composer and singer with whom he covered the beautiful song Ahwak by Zaki Nassif.
Credits: Ahwak by Zeid Hamdan and Hiba Mansouri
Unfortunately, the duo did not last long as Hiba does not want her family to know of her career as a singer.
In the course of his encounters with musicians, he collaborated on a wider variety of genres, beyond the electro-oriental music that he used to produce with Hiba and Yasmine. However, the electronic genre and the Arabic lyrics are a common thread in all his productions. Feeling that Arabic was more powerful than English, Zeid found himself motivated to continue working and expressing his views and emotions in Arabic.
Hamdan has also collaborated with the Egyptian singer and actor Maryam Saleh on trip-hop music songs (a slow-tempo musical genre that mixes hip hop and electronic music).
Credits: Eslahat by Zeid Hamdan and Maryam Saleh
During the same period, he also worked with Maii Waleed, an indie-pop Egyptian songwriter, composer, and guitarist.
Credits: Kalam El Leil by Zeid Hamdan and Maii Waleed
Today, the Lebanese artist is bringing trip-hop music into fashion through his duo, Bedouin Burger, with the Syrian singer songwriter Lynn Adib. They named their band after the nomad community, since they both used to feel like Bedouins trying to find a place in the world across different countries. It refers to the two worlds they come from musically – oriental nomadic culture and western electro pop culture – which they blend into a “burger”.
Their first song, Ya Man Hawa, is an Andalusian muwashah, released in 2020. In their Youtube video clip, Zeid and Lynn describe this genre as a “a certain style of Arabic poetry and a secular musical genre. It is a poetic form that consists of a multi-lined strophic verse poem written in classical Arabic, usually consisting of five stanzas, alternating with a refrain with a running rhyme”.
In November 2022, they released their last song called Nomad.
On a deeper level, the musician enjoys working with other artists, which is why he has pursued other projects like The New Government, Katibe5, Zeid and the Wings, and collaborations such as that with Daniel Balaji. The passion emanating from his peers feeds Zeid: he views that the different advice he gets, mistakes he makes, and skills he learns with his collaborators allow for stronger and better joint projects.
The future of underground music in a country in crisis
Being one of the pioneers of underground music in Lebanon, I was curious to know his opinions on the industry. Although he left the country due to the current crisis, he recognizes that the sector is damaged and not like it was before. “Unfortunately, only a few bands have been able to survive. The accumulation of the events (the economical crisis, COVID, the blast) stopped careers of lesser-known artists and destroyed a bunch of concert venues. Fortunately, there are still little communities in Lebanon that are producing and connecting with labels abroad”, the artist says.
Many previous supporters of the art scene in Lebanon have left the country and others have stopped supporting it due to financial restrictions. As the art industry is not sustainable for those who work in it in Lebanon, artists work several jobs and push their art into the background just to put food on the table. “It is very hard, but in fact, in a society where there is fear, there is no space for art people. Artists don’t know about the future and people aren’t in the state of mind to follow artists. Even if some artists from a certain class prosper, the rest have fallen into misery and there’s very little space to support artists. It’s always been survival and now it’s critical.”
When the boat changes course, the lighthouse stays where it is
Lebanon has let the musician down just like it has everyone, yet he still writes and performs for Lebanon. The artist, who left Lebanon ten days before the blast in 2020 for France, makes sure not to romanticize Lebanon. “I clearly see a community that is under occupation. We are people that are held hostage by a gang of corrupt individuals. Our projects are jeopardized, but since I cannot manage to feel whether Lebanon has betrayed me or not, I’m taking a step back.”
Despite this difficulty, Hamdan is open-minded towards other people’s thoughts, ideas and opinions. His mantra “everyone should benefit from the work of others” is applied to his life. “I do not work for a living. I work for my community. And my community is not defined by nationalities, it is defined by people who I collaborate with. We are really united, all of us by our needs. To eat, drink, sleep, be loved.”
End note: Writing this article made me realize how much of an inspiration Zeid Hamdan is, teaching us the power of balance, community and love. Self-educated in music and learning from those around him, he accepts his naive emotions but never censors his bold ideas, always finding a way to express them, no matter what. The pure love and respect he has towards everyone is heart-warming, as he is always looking for the person’s soul before stopping at the surface. Many might consider this as a form of naivety but there is so much more behind this: we find the bravery, the maturity and the strength required to fight our systems of corruption. We find our vulnerabilities and our individuality. We find inspiration to always keep up and move forward.
Sabine Hakim is French-Lebanese and was born and raised in France. After graduating with a Master’s degree in Entrepreneurship, she decided to learn more about her origins by living in Lebanon for almost a year. While reconnecting with her roots, she also realized the importance of art in her life. When Sabine moved back to France, she started volunteering at Meghterbin Mejtemiin and joined Al Rawiya as the Art Section Editor. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Music Business Management in Paris.