Rising star Tamino: Playing Arabic music was ‘like going back to basics’

CAIRO: “I always felt that music was an essential path for me,” says singer-songwriter Tamino-Amir Moharam Fouad (commonly known as Tamino) on the eve of his first concert in Egypt October 12 – a performance at Cairo Jazz Club 610 in front of 700 fans.

“It’s not a choice that appeals to you,” he continues. “In the same way that a prince doesn’t choose to be a prince, the music – me who loves it and does it well – was not a choice.” The description of his vocation by the Belgian-Egyptian-Lebanese musician also explains why his first album, released last year, was called “Amir”.

Lyrically, says Tamino, his eclectic 12-track debut (which has just been reissued in a “deluxe edition”) focused on “the trap of nihilism.”

Tamino performed in Egypt on October 12 at Cairo Jazz Club 610 in front of 700 fans. (Ramy Moharam Fouad)

“When I write a song, I can’t really force it where it doesn’t want to go,” he says. “It leads me.”

His concert in Cairo is a milestone for Tamino. It took him a long time to feel comfortable enough to perform in Egypt, not only because it is the homeland of his father and grandfather, but also because this grandfather is the famous late Egyptian singer and actor Moharam Fouad, whose distinctive voice saw him nicknamed ‘The Sound of the Nile.’

“It was a big step,” says Tamino. “Egypt is (my father’s country) but I didn’t grow up here and I don’t speak the language. But I care about this country and I wanted to be ready for it.

Named after the protagonist of Mozart’s 1791 opera “The Magic Flute”, the 22-year-old was born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium. He says his mother was a music lover and he had a good foundation in piano and classical music from an early age.

He didn’t spend much time with his famous grandfather, who died when Tamino was five, but he remembers visiting Fouad at his home in the nearby 6th of October city. where we meet.

“The first time I sang on the microphone was in his studio. I was only three years old at the time,” he says, adding that he still has a guitar given to Fouad by his friend. and longtime collaborator Omar Khorshid.

Tamino’s concert in Cairo was a milestone for him as it took him a long time to feel comfortable enough to perform in Egypt. (Ramy Moharam Fouad)

“When I found it, everything was broken, so I had it fixed,” he says. “I don’t take it with me anymore because it’s so fragile. But I still play it at home.

Growing up in Europe, he points out, means that as a musician he never had to deal with the pressure of being Fouad’s grandson. Instead, he was able to go his own way, initially inspired by Western alternative rock and “the concept of a solo artist with a guitar on stage”. He has been writing his own songs since the age of 14. “I learned on my own, just playing in cafes for ten people,” he says. He received no formal training until the age of 17, when he went to study at the Royal Conservatory in Amsterdam.

He cites British band Radiohead as a major early influence (their bassist, Colin Greenwood, plays on the Tamino track “Indigo Night”) and his jaw-dropping vocal abilities have compared him to the band’s frontman, Thom Yorke, as well as to acclaim by the late American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. That compliment isn’t always welcome (although he describes Buckley’s 1994 debut album, “Grace,” as “a beautiful record.”)

“If it’s a (genuine) comparison, of course I don’t mind,” says Tamino. “But if they say ‘This is the new…’ or the music is the same because Buckley was also doing oriental stuff, that’s orientalism. They’re basically saying that Pakistani music and music Arabic are the same thing.

It was a trip to his paternal grandmother’s hometown in Lebanon that introduced Tamino to his love of Arabic music – and his innate ability to incorporate it into his own sound. In 2017, he met a Syrian musician there and they played Arabic music together.

“I felt like I was revisiting something,” he says. “As if I regularly saw maqams and sang rast, bayati and hijaz. It was like a return to basics in the musical sense.

Tamino, whose influences include British band Radiohead. (Ramy Moharam Fouad)

There is certainly a clear Arabic music influence in Tamino’s growing repertoire. He released his debut EP ‘Habibi’ in early 2018 – choosing this particular title, he says, because “it was a word I knew because people in my family use it a lot. It’s a beautiful word. And it (goes with) the melody (of the title song).

“Amir” was released last October, building on the buzz created by “Habibi” and received widespread critical acclaim. Two tracks on the album – “Sun May Shine” and “So It Goes” – feature Nagham Zikrayat, a Brussels-based Arab music orchestra made up of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia. Tamino responded to the orchestra’s request to have him perform his grandfather’s songs with them by following his “hunch” and asking them to play on his album instead.

Despite his mix of Eastern and Western influences, Tamino is not a fan of “fusion” music. “It’s always cheesy. I never like it,” he says. “You try to merge two worlds but it just ends up being shitty.”

Instead, he favors a musical approach that brings Arab heritage into dialogue with other musical traditions, explaining how he and his producers embarked on a period of intensive research before embarking on “Amir.” “You have to understand (the Arab heritage),” he says.

His decision to introduce Arabic sounds into his music is, he says, directly linked to an ambivalent sense of “in-betweenness” that has accompanied him throughout his life. Music is where he reconstructs the different facets of his identity – but it is also the place of much-needed renegotiation where Tamino explores the possibility of challenging the Western gaze and the absurdity of essentialist understandings of “the ‘Arab”.

The video for “Tummy” – directed by Tamino’s brother Ramy – for example, features the singer dressed as an ancient Egyptian pharaoh.

Despite his mix of Eastern and Western influences, Tamino is not a fan of “fusion” music. (Ramy Moharam Fouad)

“The song was a joke. If you talk about Egypt in Europe or America, people still imagine pharaohs sitting on their thrones or people building pyramids,” he says. Then adds: “Not many people understood it.”

Tamino experienced these stereotypes first-hand: when he started to stand out in Belgium, he was often called “pharaoh”.

“It’s a fantasy they still have,” he says. “Not just on Egypt, but on the region as a whole.”

And it’s a myth that Tamino is helping to bust.