In the video to Tamino’s 2018 single, Tummy, the Belgian singer is covered from head to toe in gold paint, eyeliner dramatically drawn on to make him look like a pharaoh. He stands in front of a European aristocratic townhouse shirtless in a long white skirt holding up a crook and flail – the ancient Egyptian royal symbols of authority but also responsibility. Later, he mumble-sings: “I’m no longer found / Sex got all my pride,” as he crowd surfs above a throng of people who clutch and paw at him as if reaching for a deity. For the 23-year-old, the video is a playful wink at artistic bombast but also how the west views and perpetuates images of the east.
“[In that video] we wanted to show a living statue who depends on the attention of people to earn money – but sometimes the attention becomes too much. It’s a metaphor for what the life of an artist is like,” says Tamino when we meet at the sculpture park, Middelheim Museum, in his home town of Antwerp. “It seemed funny to use a pharaoh figure, yet [look at] Orientalism.”
Using music to convey deeper messages is key to what Tamino does, wrapping his ideas in melancholic indie rock and a soaring falsetto. It’s led many to compare him to the late American singer Jeff Buckley (“I really love his music and I’m flattered”) but with orchestral arrangements nodding to his Arab lineage.
Striking and brooding at over 6ft, today Tamino is draped in a navy military-parka; the word “Anglais” stencilled on his shoes in white calligraphy. He’s achingly “fashion” and dressed monochromatically by one of Antwerp’s biggest fashion exports Ann Demeulemeester of the Antwerp Six. The Flemish brand provides him with clothes every season; he’s also fronted a campaign for Missoni.
His two first names Tamino-Amir honour both sides of his heritage: Tamino (inspired by the character of Prince Tamino from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute) and Amir (which means prince in Arabic). Music runs in the family: Tamino is the grandson of one of the biggest stars of Egypt’s golden age of musical cinema in the 1960s, Muharram Fouad. When he was 14 years old, he discovered his grandfather’s antique resonator guitar in the attic of his family’s old home in Cairo. Fouad died when Tamino was a child, so it’s an important keepsake.
“I took it home and got it fixed. Now it’s a very inspirational instrument.” Tamino even toured with it for a while but now finds it too delicate to travel with.
Much has been made of Tamino’s background; he is of Belgian-Egyptian-Lebanese stock. Cross-cultural pollination is unmistakable on his debut album, Amir, that includes a collaboration with Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood (Indigo Night) and classical Arabic flourishes from the Nagham Zikrayat Orchestra, which is made up of musicians from the Middle East, many of whom are refugees from Iraq and Syria. His singing tempers detached, melancholic indie virtuosity with a hat tip to Middle-Eastern inspired melisma (Each Time). It’s easy to listen to but difficult to dissect. Where does the Arab orchestral begin and the western shoegazing end?
For the fledgling musician, it’s not so premeditated: “If I start writing and the only thing that comes out of me are country songs where you don’t hear any Arabic influence, so be it, I will not force anything,” he says.
Having staged a small tour around the Middle East, and opened for Lana Del Rey, he is growing a steady fanbase (and over 100,000 followers on Instagram). Could it be that he is also breaking stereotypes of Middle Eastern men? He tells a story about touring in Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey: “At these concerts, there were always people coming up to me afterwards saying ‘that is important’. They say it because it’s a representation of worlds coming together and they find that important because they don’t see it much.”
He ruminates momentarily about why Middle Eastern audiences might be drawn to him. “They see a guy expressing himself just the way he is. Maybe it’s because I have my roots there. It’s easier for them to connect to that,” he says. Whatever the reason, he’s happy that his concerts provide a safe space for different kinds of people. “At my concert you can do whatever you want and be whoever you want to be and that’s the beautiful thing about art. It brings people together.”