Songwriter pop: heartbreak, habibi

Ingredients for the Arab twist: 21-year-old Belgian-Egyptian pop singer Tamino sings like an androgynous prince on debut album "Amir."

"David Bowie fascinates me a lot," says Tamino Photo by Ramy Moharam Fouad.

"It wouldn’t have felt good with chamber orchestra," says Tamino-Amir Moharam Fouad. The 21-year-old Belgian artist is sipping a glass of jasmine tea. So for his debut album "Amir," on which he is accompanied by Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, he recorded guitar, pianoforte and synthesizer himself and relied on Nagham Zikrayat – an ensemble that includes refugee musicians* from Syria and Iraq. "It’s inspiring that they continue to play music with dedication despite everything," says Tamino, as he calls himself as an artist.

Nagham Zikrayat (German for "musical nostalgia") have warm vibrato in their violins and violas, cello and double bass; they also play horn and bassoon in the tradition of an Arabic firqa (as popularized in 1930s and 1940s Egypt) – as well as the frame drum riq, flute nay and short-necked lute oud – key ingredients for the Arab twist. Tamino’s music mixes their sound signature with classic Western pop arrangements: the EP "Habibi" (four of whose five songs are now on the album "Amir") immediately climbed to No. 1 in the French download charts; and in September, Tamino was awarded the Newcomer Prize at the Reeperbahn Festival.

What makes Tamino, named after the prince from Mozart’s "Magic Flute," so special? His idols are Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, Jeff Buckley and Tom Waits. But Tamino also knows notes that the venerable gentlemen could not play – because they do not exist in classical Western scales. Tamino, whose family on his father’s side comes from Egypt and Lebanon, has always listened to Arabic music. We are talking about quarter tones: unlike in Western music, an Arabic octave is not divided into twelve semitones, but into 24 quarter tones: twice as fine frequency nuances.

New music in Europe also began to take an interest in these (from their point of view) microintervals in 1920, but they are almost unheard of in pop. "I sang them intuitively for a long time before I learned about them music theoretically," Tamino says. He has since learned the aforementioned cupped-neck lute, the oud, on which those same quarter tones can be found. And another trademark: Tamino, whose tenor can also descend into somber depths, loves falsetto. When his voice broke in puberty and he lost control of some pitches, he remained faithful to the ultra-high head voice.

This is not meant sexually

Today, he also likes the androgyny of it. "Absolutely! That it resonates between the sexes like that. If we talk about gender: David Bowie fascinates me a lot." He also finds the sound of young female artists like Agnes Obel and Julia Holter important.

Most of all, he raves about sound artist Inne Eysermans, who crafted alienated soundscapes for his debut album. The source material comes from cassettes of recordings by his grandfather Moharam Fouad, who was world famous as a singer in 1960s Egypt. Tamino doesn’t speak Arabic, but he uses words like "habibi," which can mean lover, but also beloved. Most of the songs are about women, but in "So It Goes" the other person seems to be male.

There sinks one, with tender dramatic melting in the voice, not navel-gazing in misery

Tamino’s lyricism, however, is a ciphered one. "Indigo Night" tells of the son of a traveler who is ensnared by the girls of the village, which frees him from his indifference to the world – which before seemed to him merely unreal, like, brave new world, on a monitor. There is also talk of the smell of grass. And yet Tamino says in conversation, "I want to leave the revival mysterious, but I don’t mean it sexually at all."

Out of the ego tunnel

He is also somewhat weary of the drug reading, he says. "Drugs are an all-too-easy way to get to that kind of place in the short term." That’s what’s fascinating about Tamino, I suppose: there’s someone with youthful power and a delicate dramatic melt in his voice who doesn’t navel-gazingly sink into misery – his songs show ways into the world out there, away from the nihilistic ego tunnel. "I don’t see my album as a gloomy work, but as a warm one," says Tamino. He doesn’t want to deny it at all, the melancholy in some lyrics. "But there is also this grandeur, this glory." And perhaps there is something Arabic in him after all, he says: "Arab singers sing their hearts out: heartache and heartbreak. But not huddled together, but with their spine stretched out."

Tamino: "Amir" (Communion/Caroline International/Universal); live: 5. 12. "Club Volta" Cologne, 6. "Quasimodo" Berlin.

He puts it to the test, jamming the prototypical improvised line "my life sucks" like a whiner – and then again, mightily melancholy, like a fairy tale prince: "My life sucks." "Amir," the album’s title, means prince, by the way. "A prince is aristocratic," Tamino says, "but he still has a lot to learn."