The magic of Tamino
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
It was Tamino-Amir Moharam Fouad’s mother who picked his first name, in reference to the protagonist of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. And with his gentle-giant physique, dark curls and softly pitched speaking voice – unexpected from a singer known for his impressive octaves – you might assume that the 26-year-old Belgian-Egyptian had stepped from the pages of a fairy tale.
As a child, “some imaginary worlds and stories seemed more real to me”, says the Antwerp-bred singer, sitting in a studio in Paris; he’s in town for the city’s fashion week. “I recall feeling strong and eerie friendships with writers or artists, for instance, who weren’t even alive.” He describes, for example, his discovery of John Lennon as an “encounter”.
“I became obsessed with him when I was only eight or nine years old, and that’s why it was so powerful. My mom would tell me the story of his life that was, in my opinion, as striking as his art.”
Since the success of his 2017 debut single, “Habibi”, a mournful guitar-led ballad, Tamino has supported Lana Del Rey and engaged in collaborations with Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood and fellow Belgian pop star Angèle. In embracing sounds that keep him close to the roots and culture of his Egyptian father, he is part of a new generation of globally acclaimed Arabic musicians, such as the Gaza-raised, trilingual rapper Saint Levant or the Lebanese-American Hamed Sinno, former lead singer of the group Mashrou’ Leila. And fashion loves Tamino too. He has already been the face of a Missoni campaign, and was seen on the front rows of Dior and Lemaire in June. However: “I style myself, because I don’t like the sensation of needing to alter myself when I’m on stage,” he explains.
Tamino honed his musical ear via his mother’s record collection, navigating between classical music, folk and jazz. His parents, a Belgian anthropologist and an Egyptian event manager, separated when he was three years old, and he didn’t see his father for a long time afterwards. “He left an oud with a broken neck,” remembers Tamino. “This mysterious object always intrigued me, as if it was calling me.”
First, though, he learned the piano, moving onto the guitar around the age of 14 “when I stumbled upon my grandfather’s instrument tucked away in an old cupboard, in his Cairo flat”. Tamino’s grandfather was Muharram Fouad, an Egyptian singer and film star who left more than 900 songs behind him. “He passed away when I was five so I don’t really have vivid memories of him. But I always listen to his music, particularly his live recordings where you can sense the intensity of his voice.” Tamino wrote and composed his first song in the aftermath of heartbreak. “It was an epiphany. That’s when I realised I could express myself and make sense of my feelings. There was simply no alternative.”
Tamino’s first album, Amir (his other name means “prince” in Arabic), came out in 2018. It reflected his heritage by blending electric guitars with an orchestra of Arab musicians. “Incorporating Arabic sounds in my music has never been a claim or a political gesture,” he says. “Those influences are simply part of who I am.”
His second album, Sahar, released last year, is crafted around the soft combination of acoustic guitars and oud, which he finally learned to play. He was taught the basics by Tarek Al-Sayed, a Syrian musician who is one of his favourite oud players. “Composing with a guitar is more harmonic, whereas with the oud, it’s more about melody,” he says. “There is a deeper connection between your voice and the instrument. It was a completely different and fresh approach.”
Colin Greenwood contributed to a majority of Sahar’s songs. The Radiohead bassist had attended one of Tamino’s concerts before he even released his debut album. “He was specifically moved by a song, ‘Indigo Night’, and it prompted me to invite him to collaborate,” says Tamino. “Our synergy was so nice that he became a touring member of the band.” Yet Sahar already represents “a moment in time” for the artist. He needs “change”, which is why he’s considering moving to New York shortly. “I don’t know for how long but I need to get out of Belgium. I’m not someone who fears the unknown. I have realised that I feel at my best when I’m exploring and pushing myself into things that might seem scary at first – but then turn out to be gratifying and transformative.” Perhaps his fairytale has only just begun.
Hair, Michal Bielecki. Make-up, Tiziana Raimondo at Home Agency. Digital operator, Martin Varret at Imagin Paris. Stylist’s assistants, Aylin Bayhan, Aniello Luca Migliaro and Tommaso Palamin. Production, Jason Le Berre at Home Agency. Special thanks to Studio Mezo and Imagin Paris