Wednesday June 19th, 2024
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Tamino on Mythology, Egypt’s Charm & The Soulful Essence of ‘Sahar’

Right at the end of his ‘Sahar’ tour, SceneNoise sat down for an exclusive interview with Belgian-Egyptian singer-songwriter Tamino in Cairo.

Ziyad El-Helbawy

Tamino on Mythology, Egypt’s Charm & The Soulful Essence of ‘Sahar’

Cover Photo courtesy of Cairo Zoom 

“Nice to meet you, etsharaft… is that right? I’m still working on my Arabic.”

So went my first interaction with Tamino.

On Friday the 22nd of September, at approximately 2:47 PM, a few hours before what would be the penultimate night of his ‘Sahar’ tour, I walk up the staircase at the Hill House at the American University in Cairo. After a right turn, I then take the elevator three floors up. The door opens, and I take a step ahead inside a vast and empty conference hall and wait… Soon enough, the door opens, and in walks the Belgian-Egyptian singer-songwriter, Tamino-Amir Muharram Fouad.

Fresh off the plane following his shows in Turkey, Tamino was about to end his introspective and soulful ‘Sahar’ tour on the album’s first-year anniversary in a country that he, his father, and his father’s father hold dear: Egypt.

I had the privilege and pleasure of sitting down with Tamino for an exclusive SceneNoise interview in a warm and laidback encounter that wholly discredits anyone who might utter the words, “Don’t meet your idols.” During our conversation, the artist spoke of life, inspiration, music, memories…and his love for Lord of the Rings and stuffed pigeons.

Photo Credit: Aleksei Benuchi 

It’s so very nice to meet you! Welcome back!

Nice to meet you, etsharaft… is that right? I’m still working on my Arabic.

I see those Arabic Duolingo classes are going well.

Oh I'm using another app now, Pimsleur! I actually should get on it more often…

How was your flight?

It was alright! Just four hours, not that long…the thing is though, the plane looked like it was from the nineties. Kind of funny looking.

How was Istanbul? How was the tour so far?

It’s been very good. The shows in Turkey and Egypt are definitely the biggest adventures of the tour I feel. All the other shows have been in regions we’re kind of used to, especially for the band, most of whom have never even been to Egypt before. They’re excited and I’m excited to bring them here.

Like any tour, there are some shows you’ll like and some not as much, it’s hard to predict. It’s like you can’t predict whether you’re gonna have a good day or a bad day. I try to meditate to prepare; I would say it all comes down to one’s state of presence. If I'm in the moment, I can just enjoy the music, the crowds, and just really immerse myself - those are the best shows I would say.

There were times where I was completely lost in thought, and that is when I get very very critical of my own writing, even while I’m playing them up on stage. “I could’ve written this better,” I might think sometimes. Those are the worst moments on stage.

So are you getting good vibes from tonight’s show?

Oh of course! From the moment we announced it, we could just feel the excitement and we were honoured. I’m excited and I’m curious to see how it goes…

Do you have any post-show plans set yet?

Oh I definitely wanna bring the band to Khan El Khalili. Some of them haven’t even seen the pyramids yet! Cairo is just so big…I’d love to go to Dahab, but it’s just so far. I just love the Red Sea. Sinai is such a spiritual place.

Obviously music runs in the family - your grandfather is quite the beloved man here in Egypt - what would you say your earliest musical memory was?

Hmm…It’s hard to pin down just one, but it’s probably my mother playing the piano. That was always a thing around the house; come morning or evening, she would always be playing these brilliant classical pieces, and when she wasn’t, there were always records playing around the house. Arabic, Jazz, classical…it was a whole lot of everything.

Photo Credit: Herman Selleslags 

On the topic of memories, what kind of future did little Tamino imagine for himself? Did you think you’d one day be out here touring the world?

Well, actually, here’s a fun story. I wanted to be a film director, and I’d probably say that’s because of Lord of the Rings. I’m such a huge fan of the series and that world. I remember my grandmother had hidden the VCR tape because she just knew that once I saw ‘Lord of the Rings’ on the cover I would just grab it and just keep watching non-stop. One time I saw the video lying atop the cupboard so I just took a chair, grabbed it, and watched everything till they got back home. Ramy was with me, he was probably traumatised by what he was seeing. Poor five-year-old.

Ever since then, I have had a very vivid imagination. I was always making these little theatre plays and bossing my brother around to play the parts I'd tell him to play. I’d ask my mom and grandparents to watch the plays I'd come up with. I just knew I was a storyteller and I always envisioned myself to be a director one day. I even went to acting school, and it was a lot of fun, but I'm quite introverted, so the moment I found out that I could create something entirely by myself - which was music - I decided to pursue that. I wrote my first song at 14.

And is that the one you always refuse to talk about?

(Laughs) Oh I never will. That song is buried. Buried alive.

I would sell my soul to listen to it now…

You’d definitely want it back! (Laughs) It was a really… shitty song, but the feeling it gave me was truly unlike any feeling I’d had before. I realised I could do it all by myself. I could write, I could play it, or I could keep it for myself, which I did. To me, I feel like that’s the best way for me to create stuff; that solitary phase to me is my favourite place to be, mentally.

Of course the entire process can’t be solitary. But still, those initial creative sparks, that safe space in the end is why music won. Being back in that space is what I miss when I’m on tour, and is what I look forward to.

And what is that space like? How would you describe your creative process? What part of you do the songs stem from?

I really don’t know. I’d say the process is actually very banal. It’s just me with an instrument, a guitar, a piano, or even an oud now. Just me playing and noodling until I find something that moves me. It’s very much how you would imagine it goes.

Would you say the songs come piece by piece?

Oh definitely. One spark leads to another. It’s quite rare to have a song present itself in full format. That has maybe happened to me two or three times, but almost always they come one line at a time.

Which songs would you say are the ones that came to you fully realised?

‘The Longing’, definitely. ‘Indigo Night’ I’d say as well. ‘Tummy’, maybe? 

I love Tummy’s music video!

It’s so funny! Do you see the humour in it? We just wanted to make something fun and I’m proud of it.

Another song I love of yours is ‘Persephone’. I just love Greek Mythology and I have to ask, what are your literary influences? What inspires you?

I don’t know what draws me to a book, but I’ve always loved mythology and stories. I feel like a lot of these stories often have metaphysical truths to them that are just very inherent to being a human being. Even in fantasies, the lessons and the morals are still there. These truths that are touched upon in literature are often more difficult to touch upon in reality, and that’s why I love stories.

Magical realism is also something that I love, like what we did with the music video for ‘Indigo Night’, I would say that borders on magical realism. I love playing with that genre; in my lyrics, music videos, and in my storytelling as a whole. The last book I read was actually in the magical realism genre, called ‘The Gargoyle’. It’s about this man who gets burnt and no longer wants to live, and then this woman who claims to have seen him for centuries walks into his hospital room and just falls in love with him. It’s this weird love story where you never truly know what’s happening, it’s thought-provoking and I love those kinds of stories. They’re beautiful.

Photo Credit: Herman Selleslags

Speaking of beautiful, you’re playing the oud now! How does that feel? Is it different from the guitar - in the sense that you feel more connected to your Arabic roots?

For sure. It’s gotten to a point now where I feel like I can play the oud in my own way. At first, I just really wanted to be respectful of the traditions. It’s not like the guitar where you can just play outside the rules. I feel like for the oud, there’s a heritage to it you must first understand. I’m still far from a master oud player, but now I can go a bit further and so I’m at a point where I can do something that feels very intuitive with the oud, something that makes me feel connected to my roots, without it feeling forced. It just feels so liberating. It just flows. It connects to the spirit. It truly is the instrument of the soul.

I can definitely feel that connection when I listen to ‘A Drop of Blood’ - are you playing that tonight?

It’s actually the first song! And we actually have our oud teacher Tarek with us, and he’s incredible. We’re going to be playing a few songs with the oud together, including a new one.

Ooh, is that perhaps part of an upcoming album, maybe?

I hope! I usually write a bunch of songs, and a lot of them don’t make it on the album. Some I tend to not like after a while. I do think that the one I'm playing tonight might make it on the album. I wrote the base of it in New York last winter, and I still like the song, so it looks promising.

So I’ve heard you’re planning on moving to New York! How do you feel?

Yes, in two weeks! I feel slightly frightened but quite excited. I think I only have a guitar at home there, I really need to get a mattress soon. (Laughs)

‘Sahar’ was written mostly in the pandemic - what would ‘Sahar’ look like today if the pandemic had never happened?

It would not have been the same. Looking back, it’s pretty much a pandemic record. So many so-called ‘lockdown’ albums at the time were coming out, and I didn’t want mine to be a part of that. But looking back at it now, it’s pretty much heavily pandemic-influenced. It’s quite reflective and introspective. We all had time to reflect on our lives then, you could literally feel it in the air. For me, that period of introspection was quite needed following the roller coaster my life had taken me on the year before. It was insane how drastically my life had changed at that point, it was a much needed break. So yeah, ‘Sahar’ wouldn’t have been ‘Sahar’ had it not been for the pandemic.

‘Amir’ came at a time of live performances, and so it’s more dramatic. I’d say ‘Amir’ was directly influenced by all the big shows we were doing at the time. For ‘Sahar’, I didn’t have that sense of ‘drama,’ it was much calmer.

I know it’s hard to pick favourites, but what are some of your top songs from both albums?

It’s hard to pick a favourite but the top songs I can definitely do. I’d say ‘Indigo Night’ is one - it’s a song I always love performing. ‘Habibi’ definitely is another, it’s a song I’ve played a lot and never tire of. I really sense the impact of it on people. From ‘Sahar’, I’d say ‘The Longing’.

With some songs I have a love-hate relationship, which I would say is quite normal with anything in life that one creates. I see that as a positive thing because it drives you forward. If you’re content with everything you make, you won’t feel the need to better yourself. You can use those negative feelings to push yourself forward.

I hope one day I’ll be at a place where I find peace of mind looking back at all my work. But I’m proud of everything.

Where do you think life will take you? In a few years perhaps…

If I just look at my whole life so far, all of it has been guided by a longing for freedom. Just freedom from myself, my own mind. I just want to do a whole lot of meditating. Another way to freedom I would say is through my creative work; when things really started taking off in my career, I felt kind of constrained, the pressure of having to do all these shows, and I still sometimes feel that pressure and I want to get to a point where I don't feel that. That’s where I want life to take me.  I would like to slow down a little bit, that slowness of life is what feeds me and feeds my creativity.

At some point, I want to come to Egypt. Every time I’m here in Egypt I’m like, “Fuck, I need to spend more time here.” It’s a dream that I have at one point to spend more time in Cairo or maybe Sinai if a spiritual journey calls. Egypt just feels right. I cannot explain it, but there’s something logical about being in Egypt. There’s a connection I feel, to the people even. It always means a lot to me coming here. And I can’t wait for more adventures here.

Photo Credit: Ramy Muharram Fouad 

Your brother has been accompanying you throughout the tour, how does that feel? What’s your relationship like now that you’re working together all the time?

It’s great. We have a wonderful relationship as brothers and as colleagues. He’s a brilliant photographer. I do think that after ‘Amir’, there was a time where we worked on everything with each other. I mean it’s brilliant working together, but it may not always be the best creative choice being constantly dependent on one another. So we had to sit down and have a talk, and came to an agreement that when we do work together, it’s because we both want to.

The last leg of the Sahar tour is here! Do you have any post-tour plans?

I’m just in a rush to get everything ready for New York! I’ll probably be busy with all the practicals. But once I'm in New York - and once I get that mattress (Laughs) - then I'll be good to go.

Have you considered singing in Arabic one day?

Definitely. I mean I could sing in Arabic now, but I would have to learn the song phonetically and I wouldn’t feel the lyrics as much as I wanna feel them, so I wanna avoid that for now. I need to learn to speak it first so I can sing it.

Okay so, rapid-fire round. Ready?

Let’s go.

If you could collaborate with any late artist, who would it be?

Since we’re in Egypt, Riad Al Sunbati.

And who would you collaborate with today?

A dear friend who recently passed away, Tom Pintens, who actually produced my first EP, always said I should work with Alberto Iglesias. It’s something he always told me, and now with his passing, I've thought of it a lot. I love his music. 

Sunrise or sunset?

Definitely sunrise. I’m a morning person.

Favourite Egyptian dish?

Probably stuffed pigeons, I like them!

Favourite movie?

Lord of the Rings. Always.

Favourite memory?

When I was in Dahab with my mother at 14. It was beautiful and I was mesmerised.

I cannot wait to make new Egyptian memories.

And with that, our conversation ends. Tamino gets up, heads to soundcheck, and prepares to hypnotise a crowd of devoted fans.

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