Rising star Tamino: Playing Arabic music was ‘like a homecoming’

Tamino performs at The Bourges Springs music festival in Bourges, France, in April 2018. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2019

Rising star Tamino: Playing Arabic music was ‘like a homecoming’

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.”

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

“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.

Tamino's Cairo gig 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, 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.”)



Giddo’s birthday today what a gift to the world he was and what a gift it would be if he’d still be with us

A post shared by Tamino (@taminoamir) on

“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.”

Tamino, whose inflluences include UK band Radiohead. (Ramy Moharam Fouad)

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.”



Thank you for a beautiful evening Tunis Video by @michielvenmans

A post shared by Tamino (@taminoamir) on

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.

Despite his melding of influences from the East and West, Tamino is no 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 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.

Bahraini singer Mo Zowayed: ‘I’m not the sad and tortured type’

Mo Zowayed started singing when he was about 25. (Supplied)
Updated 34 min 55 sec ago

Bahraini singer Mo Zowayed: ‘I’m not the sad and tortured type’

  • The Bahraini singer-songwriter discusses his latest album and keeping busy in lockdown


MANAMA: Mo Zowayed’s email signature bills him as “Singer. Songwriter. Sleeper.” But the sleeping part of his repertoire is clearly not top of the 31-year-old Bahraini’s agenda.

Even in lockdown he’s busy, having recently taken part in an online concert to raise funds for Bahrain Animal Rescue Centre. (“I don’t know what life would be like without dogs and I’d rather not find out,” he says.) There’s another scheduled for the end of May. 

He’s also just gone live with his “Viola Sessions” — a series of five original tunes from his latest album,  “That Good Love,” released in November, captured at a local club — and he’s performing Instagram Live sessions every Saturday afternoon, besides writing a bunch of new material.

His dad is an oud player and his grandfather Mohamed is a respected folk singer. (Supplied)

It’s no surprise Zowayed ended up as a musician. His dad, Yusuf, is an oud player and his grandfather Mohamed is a respected folk singer. His own musical journey, though, began with a spot of bribery. 

“I started when I was 13. I struggled a bit in seventh grade with my math grades. My parents agreed to buy me a guitar if I managed to turn my grades around,” he says. “It was tough, but I did it. I got the guitar.” He’s now an accomplished player of several instruments, including mandolin, banjo, trumpet, ukulele and harmonica.

He didn’t start singing until he was about 25, though. He cites acoustic artists including Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz and Ben Harper as major influences. “I just loved the way that they could express themselves with just a guitar and (vocals). So, I started practicing like crazy,” he says. 

His own musical journey, though, began with a spot of bribery. (Supplied)

Unlike many regional musicians, he was always set on writing and performing his own material, rather than covers. “I’m still surprised when I meet a good musician who doesn’t write their own stuff,” he says. “For me, it’s the most enjoyable part — there’s no feeling like performing a song you’ve written and having some of the audience singing along.”

Zowayed quickly established himself on the Bahrain music scene. “I started by accepting every single gig. I played everywhere — every little dingy venue. There were some well-known bands in Bahrain, but they played a couple shows a year, tops. I just wanted to put myself out there, and I was one of very few people doing that. What makes me happy is that almost every band in Bahrain is doing that now. We’ve got a community of working musicians who are on stage all the time. I love seeing that.”

His work ethic and determination eventually landed him an American tour — something few independent musicians from the Middle East manage to achieve. “I spent months emailing, calling and messaging venues in the US. I must have contacted over 100 venues and festivals. I didn’t give up, even after 50 rejections — no exaggeration. I just kept trying.

He cites acoustic artist Ben Harper as a major influence. (AFP)

“Eventually I was offered a spot at Farmfest in Michigan. That gave me the motivation to keep trying to book shows. We played in Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, Nashville, Alabama and Ohio. It was the most surreal time.”

From there, Zowayed and his “incredible band” The Moonshiners, got offered a support slot for UK star Jools Holland at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall in 2017. “I just can’t overstate how magical that night was,” he says. In December last year, he and The Moonshiners were back on tour with Holland and played several shows of their own in the UK to support the release of “The Good Love.”

He cites acoustic artist Jason Mraz as a major influence. (AFP)

That album has evolved from the folky roots of Zowayed’s debut EP “New York Times,” partly because he’s playing an electric guitar, but he describes it as a natural progression. 

“I really wanted to make an upbeat record, because that’s the kind of music I’m into these days. I’m a pretty upbeat guy,” he says. “I’m not the sad and tortured type, and I’ve realized that’s okay, I don’t need to be.  As soon as I embraced that, the songs started pouring out. The result is an album that gets me excited every time I hear it.” 

Zowayed’s goal is to be a touring musician, and he recognizes that that could mean leaving the GCC. “It’s simply not possible in the Middle East when it comes to non-Arabic music,” he says. 

But his local fans don’t need to worry just yet. “I’m on a mission to put out as much music and as many videos as I can and play as many shows as possible,” he says. “And I hope to see everyone at a live show once we kick this virus in the behind.”