Y.A.S. has been getting a fair amount of publicity for its album Arabology, which reportedly has gotten a good buzz in France and Belgium. Check out the video for the first single from the album, "Get It Right." The video features images of space travel, numerous shots of familiar sights/sites in Cairo, lots of chatting on the mobile phone, dancing in a posh Arab disco, and the statuesque singer of Y.A.S., Yasmine Hamdan, who could certainly be a fashion model if she weren't pursuing a career in music. It is really beautifully filmed, a sure sign of the fact that Universal Music is putting a lot of money into backing Y.A.S. It's directed by Stephane Sednaoui, well-known photographer, music vid director (R.E.M., Björk, Massive Attack, Tricky, Beck...), and man about town (linked romantically to Björk, Kylie Minogue and Laetitia Casta, among others).
I quite like the song, it's infectious, it's danceable--and it has Arabic vocals. It's just counting (wahad, tnayn, tlaata, arba'...i.e. 1-2-3-4...) in Arabic, and the other lyrics are in English. Otherwise there is nothing Middle Eastern sounding about it. But go to Y.A.S.'s myspace page, and you'll get a more Middle Eastern feel if you listen to the extract from the song, "Yaspop"--which has real Arabic lyrics, rather than just chanted numbers. According to Fanoos, "It somewhat denounces occupation and the presence of foreign secret agents, married with the idea of globalization and a capitalist economy." (I need to receive my CD in the mail and listen to the entire song to see whether this is the case.) And be sure to check out the remix of "Get It Right" by noted DJ Felix da Housecat. (Another sure sign that Arabology has some serious backing from its record label.)
An article about Y.A.S. appeared in the Wall Street Journal on August 20--another sign, I think, of a publicity campaign mounted by Universal. And it included this photo, from renowned fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. It shows the other member of Y.A.S., Mirwais Ahmadzaï, the Paris-based Italian-Afghan producer who has worked with Fischerspooner and Madonna. No doubt the participation of a high-profile producer like Mirwais is key to Universal's support for the YAS project.
The focus of the Wall Street Journal article, and the video that accompanies it, is the issue of Arabic--the fact that Yasmine Hamdan's former band, Soap Kills, were pioneers in the Lebanese rock scene and were responsible making singing in Arabic conventional in Lebanese rock, and the problem of trying to sell Y.A.S. records in the West when Arabic is so "foreign." Soap Kills were a terrific band, who were at the cutting edge of the Beirut "alternative" music scene from the mid-90s til 2005. They were frequently called the Lebanese trip-hop band--not an entirely inaccurate comparison. If you search for Soap Kills on youtube, you will find a number of their songs. I particularly like the song "Aranis," from the album Cheftak, whose lyrics consist of phrases you would hear street vendors and service (collective taxi) drivers yell out in Beirut.
It seems that Lebanese rock bands in fact were a bit behind the rest of the Arab world in switching from vocals in English or French to Arabic. Probably this has to do with the fact that (a) English and French are used nearly as much in urban Lebanon as Arabic and (b) that the rock scene in Lebanon was mostly non-existent from 1975-1990, the years of the civil war. Rachid et Fethi (Baba Ahmed) were releasing rock tracks in Arabic in Algeria as early as the seventies. (They later became celebrated rai producers.) And you can also hear "rock in Arabic" on an amazing album put out by Columbia records in the US in 1967, Hard Rock from the Middle East by The Devil's Anvil. The Devil's Anvil were a band that played around in the Village in New York City in the mid-sixties, were discovered by Felix Pappalardi, who started playing bass for them and got them signed to Columbia, and also included Steve Knight, who went on to form Mountain with Pappalardi. Vocals were provided by Kareem Isaaq, who handled the Arabic. Check out "Besaha"--rockin'! (I hope someday someone writes at the very least an article on rock'n'roll in the Arab world, especially from the 50s to the 70s.)
As for singing in that strange language of Arabic before a Western audience--Y.A.S. is not really in the vanguard here either. The first blow was struck--if I'm not mistaken--by rai star Khaled, with "Didi," his huge 1992 hit--all over Europe, all over the world (except North America) in fact. Since then, rai has become pretty mainstream in France, and Khaled and Cheb Mami and others have had hits sung in Arabic. Natacha Atlas has been successful in Europe as well, and don't forget Rachid Taha, especially his cover of "Ya Rayah."
I love the work of Yasmine Hamdan, in Soap Kills, and I love what I've heard of Y.A.S. I do hope that "Get It Right" is a big hit for them. (According to the Wall Street Journal, YAS is trying to rework Arabology for the US market. So all we can acquire here is an import CD. If you live in the US, you can't even download Arabology from the French Amazon.com site!) But I think Y.A.S. should be seen as part of a larger trend of the growing popularity of Arabic music in the West, not as an unprecedented phenom. (Although a hit in the dance music or rocket circuit--that would be huge.)
Read more about Yasmine and Y.A.S. and Soap Kills in this article by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in The National. Wow, Yasmine namechecks the Bandaly family! And am I right in understanding that she is romantically involved with Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman?
A final curiosity. Trax magazine claims that Peaches, in her new "Serpentine" video, is wearing the same leather outfit for a few seconds that Yasmine wears in the "Get It Right" video. Can you see it? I can't. But it's worth watching the Peaches video all the same. She hasn't lost a step.