CAIRO: “I always felt that music was an inescapable path for me,” says singer-songwriter Tamino-Amir Moharam Fouad (generally just known as Tamino) on the eve of his debut concert in Egypt on October 12 — a performance at the Cairo Jazz Club 610 in front of 700 fans.
“It’s not a choice you gravitate to,” he continues. “In the same way as a prince doesn’t choose to be a prince, music — me liking it and being good at it — wasn’t a choice.” The Belgian-Egyptian-Lebanese musician’s description of his vocation also explains why his debut album, released last year, was called “Amir.”
Lyrically, Tamino says, his eclectic 12-track debut (which has just been re-released in a "deluxe edition") focused on “the trap of nihilism.”
“When I write a song, I cannot really force it anywhere it doesn’t want to go,” he says. “It leads me.”
His Cairo gig is something of a milestone for Tamino. It took him a long time to feel comfortable enough to perform in Egypt, not just because it’s the homeland of his father and grandfather, but also because that grandfather is the celebrated late Egyptian singer and actor Moharam Fouad, whose distinctive voice saw him dubbed ‘The Sound of the Nile.’
“It was a big step,” Tamino says. “Egypt is (my father’s country) but I didn’t grow up here and I don’t speak the language. But I do 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 an avid music connoisseur, and from an early age he had a good grounding in piano and classical music.
He didn’t get to spend much time with his famous grandfather, who died when Tamino was five, but he remembers visiting Fouad at his house in 6th October city — not far from where we meet.
“The first time I sang through a microphone was in his studio. I was only three at the time,” he says, adding that he still has a guitar gifted to Fouad by his long-time friend and collaborator Omar Khorshid.
“When I found it, it was all broken, so I got 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, meant that — as a musician — he never had to deal with the pressure of being Fouad’s grandson. Instead he was able to follow his own path, initially inspired by Western alternative rock and “the concept of a solo artist with a guitar on stage.” He has been writing his own material since he was 14. “I learned alone, just by playing live in cafes for ten people,” he says. He had no formal training until he was 17, when he went to study at Amsterdam’s Royal Conservatory.
He cites UK band Radiohead as a major early influence (their bass player, Colin Greenwood, plays on Tamino’s track “Indigo Night”) and his jaw-dropping vocal abilities have seen him compared to the band’s frontman, Thom Yorke, as well as the acclaimed late US 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, then of course I don’t mind it,” says Tamino. “But if they say ‘He’s the new....” or that the music is the same because Buckley was doing some oriental stuff as well, that’s orientalism. They are basically saying that Pakistani music and Arab music are the same thing.”
It was a trip to his paternal grandmother’s hometown in Lebanon that allowed Tamino to discover 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 some Arabic music together.
“It felt like I was revisiting something,” he says. “Like I had regularly been seeing maqams and singing rast, bayati and hijaz. It was like a homecoming in a musical sense.”
There is certainly a clear influence from Arabic music in Tamino’s growing repertoire. He released his debut EP “Habibi” in early 2018 — choosing that particular title, he says, because, “It was a word I was familiar with because people in my family use it a lot. It’s a beautiful word. And it (went with) the melody (of the title track).”
“Amir” released last October, built 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 Arabic music orchestra comprising 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 “gut feeling” and asking them to play on his album instead.
Despite his melding of influences from the East and West, however, Tamino is no fan of “fusion” music. “Its always cheesy. I never like it,” he says. “You try to merge two worlds but it ends up just being crappy.”
Instead, he favors a musical approach that brings Arabic heritage into conversation with other musical traditions, explaining how he and his producers embarked on a period of intensive research before getting started on “Amir.” “You have to understand (the Arabic heritage),” he says.
His decision to introduce Arabic sounds into his music is, he says, directly tied to an ambivalent sense of “in-betweenness” that has accompanied him all his life. Music is where he pieces together the different facets of his identity — but it is also the site of a much-needed renegotiation where Tamino explores the possibility of questioning 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 an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh.
“The song was a joke. If you talk about Egypt in Europe or America, people still imagine pharaohs sitting on their throne, or people building pyramids,” he says. Then adds, “Not many people understood it.”
Tamino has experienced those stereotypes first hand: When he first began to get noticed in Belgium, he was often referred to as “pharaoh.”
“It’s a fantasy they still have,” he says. “Not only about Egypt, but the region as a whole.”
And it’s a myth that Tamino is helping to shatter.