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Tamino Channels Voices From His Arabic Heritage Into His Own Eccentric Sound

Apr 5, 2019
Originally published on April 5, 2019 5:45 pm

At 22 years old, Tamino possesses a voice that carries the hypnotic, immediate power of something much more ancient. Born Tamino Moharam Fouad and named after a prince in Mozart's The Magic Flute, the Belgian-Egyptian artist explores his heritage by combining his own sound with Arabic influences of his Lebanese and Egyptian ancestors. Tamino's debut album, Amir, out now, melds together the artist's eccentric vocal style with Arab musical theory.

When Tamino was a kid, he found an old guitar gathering dust in a cupboard while visiting family in Cairo, and brought it back home with him to Belgium. The guitar was once played by Muharram Fouad, Tamino's grandfather and a famous Egyptian singer who starred in Hassan and Nayima, which is, as Tamino tells it, "the Romeo and Juliet of Egyptian cinema."

"The songs played in that movie became hits, not only in Egypt but the whole Arabic world, actually," Tamino says. "He had a very long career until the '80s, but he died unfortunately when I was 5, so I don't really have memories of him. I only have his music."

Left behind for Tamino were cassettes of his grandfather's music. Tamino was able to incorporate the music on the cassettes into his own music for the album with the help of a friend.

YouTube

"She takes the cassettes...she makes new sounds with them," Tamino says. "You cannot recognize them anymore, but for me, it was symbolically very important that these sounds came from these cassettes that I had all my life."

Amir also features Nagham Zikrayat, an orchestra of Middle Eastern instrumentalists, many of whom are refugees from Iraq and Syria. "They capture the essence of Arabic music from like the '50s and the '60s — we call it the golden age of Arabic music," Tamino says about working with Nagham Zikraya. "They add this individuality and charisma in what they are playing."

Tamino says there's a lot he still has to discover about the country and culture of Egypt. Though he's visited many times, he has yet to play there.

"The language is gonna be hard. I know it's gonna be hard, but the one thing that's not hard is the music," he says. "It's the one thing I've always had a connection to. It's the one thing that just feels like it's in me — like a homecoming."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the singer Tamino was a kid, he visited family in Cairo. He found an old guitar once played by his grandfather, Muharram Fouad, who was a famous Egyptian singer decades before.

TAMINO: It was just lying in storage, in a cupboard gathering dust. I didn't play guitar back then, so when I saw that guitar, I immediately knew I wanted to learn how to play the guitar.

SHAPIRO: He did learn. He took that guitar back home to Belgium, honed his singing voice and began writing songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERSES")

TAMINO: (Singing) Yesterday I was a word left with no voice to speak it.

SHAPIRO: Now at 22, he has released his debut album called "Amir." In part, it's an exploration of his grandfather's music and an attempt to experiment with those Arabic musical roots.

TAMINO: My grandfather - he was very poor, and then he was discovered when he was 19. And he starred in this movie called "Hassan And Nayima," which is kind of the "Romeo And Juliet" of Egyptian cinema. And the songs played in that movie became hits not only in Egypt and the whole Arabic world actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HASSAN AND NAYIMA")

MUHARRAM FOUAD: (As Hassan, singing in foreign language).

TAMINO: He had a very long career until the '80s. To compare, it's like the Frank Sinatra of Egypt. But he died unfortunately when I was 5, so I don't really have memories of him. I only have his music.

(CHEERING)

TAMINO: This small orchestra from Brussels called Nagham Zikrayat do these evenings where they play music of famous Arabic musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMINO SONG, "SO IT GOES")

TAMINO: They wanted to do one of these evenings with his music, and they wanted me to sing. But I don't speak Arabic because I grew up in Belgium. But I returned the question. I asked them if they would want to play on my record, and they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO IT GOES")

TAMINO: (Singing) I crowned the same old passing of time, gave the golden scepter though it was never really mine.

They captured the essence of Arabic music from, like, the '50s and the '60s. We call it the golden age of Arabic music. They add this individuality and charisma in what they are playing, different ad libs and all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO IT GOES")

TAMINO: (Singing) It has stopped to move me.

String players - they even tune their violins differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMINO SONG, "SO IT GOES")

TAMINO: And we had cassettes of my grandfather. I gave them to a friend of mine. She takes the cassettes, and she makes new sounds with them. You cannot recognize them anymore. But for me, it was symbolically very important that these sounds came from these cassettes that I had all my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMINO SONG, "HABIBI")

TAMINO: Recording with this Arabic orchestra was a very conscious decision of course. And adding electronics - that was very conscious also. We really wanted to represent who I am, which is a coming together of all these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HABIBI")

TAMINO: (Singing) And as the full start tries his best to make the white pearl shine, glances of a new day have arrived.

It's important to study the traditions. And what I'm doing right now is I'm finding that culture again. It is definitely a big emotional step to go back to Egypt. I've been there are a lot of times, but I never play there - so many things that I still have to discover about the country of my father, you know? The language going to be hard. I know it's going to be hard. But the one thing that's not hard is the music. It's the one thing I've always had a connection to. It's the one thing that just feels like it's in me, like a homecoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAMINO SONG, "HABIBI")

SHAPIRO: That's Belgian-Egyptian singer Tamino. His debut album is called "Amir." Producer Noah Caldwell caught up with him at the South by Southwest music festival. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.