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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Omar Kamal: The jazz man who flew to the moon

Ahead of his Abu Dhabi performance, the Palestinian crooner talks to The National about his West Bank roots and fusing jazz with Arabic music

Omar Kamal, the Palestinian singer and composer has a timeless voice that also transcends borders.
Omar Kamal, the Palestinian singer and composer has a timeless voice that also transcends borders.

Among the violence and trauma of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Omar Kamal found serenity at the piano.

Eight years old at the time of the Second Intifada in 2000, Kamal spent his days in the family home tinkering on the piano, kindling a creative fire within him.

“I know that it can sound a little bit, I don’t know, sentimental or like a movie maybe, but what was happening in Nablus [in the northern West Bank], that was real – a little bit too real,” he says. “So there is that element of me wanting to find some form of escape.”

Tinkling at the piano was also encouraged, because Kamal grew up in a musical household – his mother was a trained vocalist, while his father was an avid and eclectic listener. Impromptu performances were often held when the extended family visited, each picking up any one of a variety of instruments that lay around the house.

While content with his solid repertoire of piano classics, Kamal took a decisive turn upon discovering Frank Sinatra – particularly the Ol’ Blue Eyes 1964 favourite Fly Me to The Moon.

“That was the song for me. From there I went on to get some kind of obsession about Frank Sinatra and studied the way he sang,” he says. “It also made me move away from classical towards jazz and swing. It did kind of start with him.”

From then on, Kamal’s career trajectory grew to resemble the theme of the aforementioned song.

After relocating to Cardiff to study for an engineering degree, Kamal formed a band and began performing regularly in the United Kingdom; all the while dropping intimate recordings of covers of regional classics, such as Fairuz’s Li Beirut and the patriotic anthem Sarkhat Mawtini (My Nation’s Outcry), as well as jazz standards by Dean Martin (Sway), and of course Sinatra’s track What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?

The internet buzz around these covers made their way to the Sony Music Middle East offices in Dubai Media City, who wasted no time in signing Kamal up to a record deal.

After his graduation, Kamal’s return ticket back to Nablus was re-routed to the United States, where he was given further musical education from another set of masters.

In addition to its pristine production, another thing you can say about Kamal’s debut covers album, Serenade, is that it was recorded in the shadows of the legends it pays tribute to. Kamal, who is set to perform a smattering of the tracks as part of his Abu Dhabi Festival performance on Saturday, recounts how the album was created in two phases.

There was a songwriting session in Las Vegas, during which Kamal collaborated with the industry A-team of Dave Pierce (who worked with Michael Bublé), and more intriguingly, Bob Rock – the Canadian rock producer renowned for polishing the heavier sounds of Metallica and Mötley Crüe.

Kamal says that for all the raucous noise Rock has produced over the course of three decades, the recording master has a serene studio demeanour. “He would just sit there and listen and he would make decisions instinctively,” he says. “He is very aware. He would listen until he felt something – he had to respond to it emotionally. If it didn’t feel right he would just get up and change the arrangements on the spot.”

Despite the dreamlike nature of the whole experience, Kamal, 26, says the process included its fair share of graft and emotional turmoil.

Case in point, finally entering the famed Capital Studios in which his idol Sinatra recorded more than a dozen of his seminal albums, among them 1954’s Songs for Young Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours (1955). “It was nerve-racking,” he says. “Because this was the place where everything happened and I was trying to keep focused and [keep] everything together.”

When it came to tackling the songs themselves, there were a few curve balls. In addition to his breezy and string-laden covers of Michael Jackson’s posthumous 2014 hit Love Never Felt So Good and the 1990 soft-rock hit More Than Words by Extreme, Rock and Pierce forced Kamal to tackle trickier numbers such as the deceptively dynamic If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot) and Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel.

It was the latter, and Serenade’s opening number, that tested Kamal the most. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t particularly like it at the time,” he says. “I would go in there and give it my all in the end until my voice cracked. And this is where working with the producers came in; they showed me a different way to do it and still show that same emotion. Also, the more time you spend with the song, the more as a singer I appreciate the emotions and story behind it.”

While Serenade has done its job in establishing Kamal as a promising international musical talent, it can be argued that has come at a cost – his regional music sensibilities.

Owing to a mix of commercial and artistic reasons, the album lacks the jazzy Arabic covers that gained Kamal his first legion of fans.

But this is set to be rectified at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Festival show. Backed by an orchestra, Kamal will lace his performances with updated renderings of songs by classic Arab artists such as Egypt’s Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Fairuz.

“The album does speak to a more western audience and the fact that I have such exposure in the Middle East calls for some kind of fusion,” Kamal admits. “But it is also about finding the right balance. You don’t want to overdo anything that contradicts your vision. With the Arabic songs, it was all about the reaction on the stage. By adding them in there, I do feel that it adds something extra to the show. So it’s just about doing it in a way that’s not tacky or clichéd.”

Which is a challenging task on its own, as the term “fusion” has increasingly become a byword for the clichéd and tacky. While that may be true in a more modern sense, Kamal believes that classic Arab artists such as Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez had the right idea with their eclectic compositions.

“You can hear Hafiz talking about this in old interviews,” he says. “He wasn’t actually going out to create western music, but that he always listened to different kinds of music and that came out in the songs that he made. It was a natural kind of influence.”

With his good looks and slick suit-and-tie get-up, it didn’t take long for the press to dub Kamal the “Palestinian Frank Sinatra”. While chuffed with the generous comparison, he is rather ambivalent to the moniker and the fact that his nationality always crops up in interviews.

While understanding the complaints of fellow creative compatriots that such distinctions take away from their work, Kamal says it’s a major part of his story that he simply can’t deny.

Indeed, he regularly travels home to Nablus, not only to see his family but to recalibrate himself from the hard grind of touring.

“It brings me back to ground zero,” he says. “I owe a lot to being Palestinian, because it gave me a lot of push as well. I can say that comfortably because that’s the truth.”

Omar Kamal performs at Emirates Palace Auditorium, Abu Dhabi, on Saturday, from 8pm. Tickets start from Dh200 and can be purchased via www.abudhabifestival.ae

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