In perfect harmony: how an Egyptian star's old guitar inspired Tamino's musical journey
The grandson of the late musical actor Muharram Fouad fuses eastern and western sounds in his work
When Tamino was 14, he found an antique guitar in the attic of his family’s home in Cairo. Something about the instrument intrigued him – as it should. It belonged to his grandfather, Muharram Fouad, who was a huge star in Egypt’s golden age of musical cinema in the 1960s. “That moment, wow,” Tamino exhales. “Up until then I was only playing piano, but I got the guitar fixed because it was so cool, custom-made for him. Maybe, in a way, I’m keeping his musical legacy alive – even though I didn’t really know him.”
Tamino Amir Moharam Fouad, to give him his full name, is certainly doing that. We’re talking during his recent European tour to support the deluxe version of his debut album, Amir. It’s a wonderful record, full of heart, soul and Tamino’s affecting falsetto, which has brought comparisons to Jeff Buckley. At the intimate Manchester gig – featuring only Tamino and his guitar – couples whisper the lyrics to each other and roar the soaring choruses back to the impossibly good-looking singer, 23, who is, unsurprisingly, also a model.
“Playing these songs each night and seeing what they mean to people and the reactions they bring about is very motivating,” he says. “They’re not really my songs any more, they belong to whoever needs them. When there’s an exchange of energies between me and the audience, when you’re fully in the moment, that’s all you could ask for.”
Arguably, this connection comes from Tamino’s own journey to this point. Born in Belgium to Egyptian and Lebanese parents, he genuinely has something for everyone. Indie rock fans will love the nods to Karma Police-era Radiohead. But there are classical Arabic accompaniments from the Nagham Zikrayat Orchestra, too, which comprises musicians from across the region including refugees from Iraq and Syria. Yet none of these diverse styles feel forced.
“I wish it was easy to sit down and say, ‘OK, I’m going to write myself a very good song that will connect with the Arab world,’” he says, jokingly. “Unfortunately that’s not the case. As Leonard Cohen said, ‘If I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often.’
“The songs happen naturally – it’s such an abstract process and I really never know what I’m going to end up with. Seriously, if there were only country songs coming out of me, then I’d write a country music album.”
You wouldn’t put it past him. But just like taking country to Nashville, it was a real highlight for Tamino to give these songs a “homecoming” this year, to Turkey, Morocco and finally the city where his grandfather found his fame, Cairo. “Honestly, I don’t think it was a given that people from these regions were going to connect with my music,” he protests. “But they did – in the end, of course, they listen to all sorts of music, but maybe with me they do see a coming together of a world that they know very well … and a world they see from a distance.
“The overall vibe of my music is warm, and in these regions the people are very often passionate and romantic, so that might have something to do with why it went down so well. It was the same there [in Manchester] – in the end, people are people, everywhere. They just love music.”
But there’s no doubting that the Nagham Zikrayat Orchestra gives Amir both a recognisably Arab sound and also, for European listeners, something completely different. It’s ambitious, too, because Tamino isn’t a composer. So he let the orchestra loose to improvise and embellish his songs as they saw fit. “It was really cool, a really special experience, because no take was ever the same,” he remembers.
And even though Tamino did write some simple melodies for the orchestra to work from, he allowed them to play their instruments the way they wanted. “Finding a unity in the individualistic,” he calls it. And the results are astonishing. “Because there’s not much harmony going on in Arabic music, the orchestra just becomes this real wall of sound,” he beams.
Talking about orchestras brings us, in a roundabout way, to the connection with Radiohead on Amir – the track Indigo Nights. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood is now making quite a name for himself in classical circles – he curated one of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London this year – and his brother in the band, Colin, happened across Tamino at a concert in the Belgian’s home town, Antwerp. It transpired that they had mutual friends, and after the gig they talked. “Very surreal,” remembers Tamino. Before long they were discussing if Colin wanted to play on Indigo Nights, a song he was particularly taken with live.
“He’s just the kindest person,” says Tamino. “I don’t know anyone quite like him. Since Indigo Nights, he’s played gigs with me when he can. I wish I could take him with me everywhere – and that I could have involved him earlier in the record actually. Maybe on the next one …”
How that next one will actually sound, though, is not fully formed in Tamino’s mind yet. He’s started playing the oud – on which both his father and grandfather were proficient – after yet another musical instrument discovery at home. Whether that will make it into the recording sessions remains to be seen; Tamino is not the kind of person to pick up an oud on tour and start working out new songs.
“I need to land and be in one place to write music,” he reveals. “So I’m going to take a long break from touring at some point in 2020 and focus, approach the second album like a nine to five job: start work and see where I end up every day.”
Which sounds oddly prosaic for a young musician who is quite clearly a dreamer, a romantic and someone fiercely confident in the power of music to soundtrack lives. “OK, well it’s not like I was born into a household of accountants, is it,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know my grandfather, but my parents are so supportive and maybe a bit proud, too. How has all that influenced me? Well, I’ve never had to question my love for music, my natural longing for pursuing it.”
That pursuit can only flourish this year.
Amir (Deluxe) is out now. Tamino is on tour in the US from Monday, March 9, to Saturday, March 28. More information is at www.taminomusic.com
Updated: January 1, 2020 04:26 PM