Let’s be honest. It was not going to be long before I, a self-confessed fan of trip-hop, had sniffed out any Arab bands that even slightly dabbled with the tell-tale, echoing, miserable beats that so define it.
So we segue into SoapKills (described by French media as “trip-hop à l’orientale”), a Lebanese-based duo who, though not currently active, are certainly worth a listen. A pairing which notably shaped the way underground music developed in Beirut, SoapKills seems to have all the right influences – a little Portishead here, a little Massive Attack there – and yet they still retain a sense of ‘Arabism’ which gives them that little bit of something different. Elements taken from traditional Lebanese music hum in the background of many of their tracks, dragged into the modern era by sultry snares, string samples and chiming piano.
Yasmine Hamdan is much responsible for keeping the music steeped in music traditional to the Middle East. On songs such as ‘Yahoo!’ from their first album Bater, Yasmine Hamdan’s singing has earmarks of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum, darting around oriental scales with graceful dexterity whilst percussion and synth alike reverberate in the background. And yet, there is a playfulness to Hamdan’s singing, particularly when she can conjure up a style reminiscent of Beth Gibbons (Portishead) just as easily, perhaps best displayed in ‘Herzan’ (from their most recent album Enta Fen), a song mixing the best trip-hop vibes alongside reggae whimsy.
Yasmine Hamdan makes up just one half of the duo that is SoapKills. Her counterpart, Zeid Hamdan (no relation), completes the pair. An experimental collaboration which began in 1997, seven years on from the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the band began to gather a cult following and came to represent a youthful sense of optimism as new freedoms and liberal thinking began to pervade Beirut society.
According to Zeid Hamdan, the name was inspired by just that sense of optimism, wherein Beirut had experienced a painful cleansing (the civil war) and was now free to explore a changed world, one with barriers not so firmly fixed. The duo gave voice to a generation which suffered from the immediate effects of a civil war, and yet also offer escape, thematically dwelling on tales of love and loss, lyrically constructing puns and playing around with Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Kuwait and Bedouin dialects as they did so.
SoapKills invokes a combined sense of trip-hop claustrophobia, Arab traditionalism and some intangible sense of ‘other’
SoapKills aptly invokes a combined sense of trip-hop claustrophobia, Arab traditionalism and some intangible sense of ‘other’ in all their music. It is perhaps this ‘other’ that is most exciting. There is an unexpectedness that can come from some of their tracks. It may well be that their straddling genres (one born in Bristol, the other in Beirut) gives them a sense of freedom to draw from neither, and to simply explore what both can be combined with.
Occasionally, there is a feeling of drab uninventiveness- none of their albums are consistent in production or composition and it sometimes feels as though they tread water, rather than wade further in. And yet, when they hit it, SoapKills can be defined by neither trip-hop nor Arab traditional pop. Instead, they arrive at an eclectic mix entirely their own. They deserve a listen, if only for those moments.