When Tamino first began the practice of meditation during the pandemic, he thought of it as a method of disconnection, one that could help him shut out his thoughts. But during the 10-minute intervals when he tried to keep his inner monologue at bay, the 25-year-old Belgian-Egyptian singer and songwriter found himself more annoyed than serene. He soon realized that the key wasn’t to achieve silence, but perspective from deep observation and solitude.
Tamino’s sophomore studio album Sahar — out today, September 23, via Djinn — was born from this experience of inward analysis. In Arabic, the title roughly translates to “just before dawn,” the brief period of time in which the day is free from distraction. “They have a word for this specific moment and it just conjures up this in-between realm for me, like a reflective state of being,” he explains over Zoom from his home in Antwerp. Sahar isn’t a concept record, but its 10 tracks are bound together by a subtle thematic thread that is more emotional, or even metaphorical, than tangible. “They were in this in-between realm, like they were in the aftermath of some event, like a storm,” he says of these melancholy, acoustic-driven songs.
It’s clear that the weather around Tamino was changing during Sahar’s creation too, as he reflected on the transition from student to full-time musician. The release of his debut album Amir in 2018 — and the extra attention he garnered as the grandson of one of Egypt’s best-loved actors and singers, Muharram Fouad — swept him away from a life of passing time in small towns where everyone knew everyone, and towards the spotlight. On Sahar’s “The First Disciple,” a typically stirring vocal performance, he muses on hero-worship, while “My Dearest Friend and Enemy” looks at how quickly comfort can turn to chaos.
As his surroundings changed, his understanding of himself and the people around him, even those he’s looked up to, began to transform, too. Below, Tamino talks to The FADER about the influence of the Lebanese-American author Khalil Gibran meditation, recording Sahar with Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood, and the stillness of meditation.
There are a lot of thematic threads throughout the album about how you perceive yourself, how you perceive other people, and how other people perceive you. How did your idea of visibility change while making the record?
Those themes are most present in a song like “The First Disciple,” where I think that song talks a bit about idolization and how it reflects on how maybe I was hurt, maybe I idolized people as a teenager. To make it more specific, there's this one writer that I really admire called Khalil Gibran, and he wrote The Prophet, which is this little book full of wisdom. The first time I read it, I was just blown away and I was convinced that whoever would be able to write something like that, he would be the essence of what he was writing — that he is his art, basically. But, of course, as you grow older, you realize that's not true.
You realize every human being is flawed, and even if you make something quite extraordinary, like he did, he is still this human being. He had troubles with alcohol, he wasn't really treating the people closest to him nicely, he was very conflicted about how he was perceived and who he actually was. [There was] something about reading that. I had actually already written the song and after that, I read this article about him called “The Fall of the Prophet.” I was like, ‘Whoa, there's so many connections to this and the song.’ Of course, you can interpret the song as me singing to myself, which is a perfectly valid interpretation. But, in a way, it's also singing towards my idols.
There are also a lot of contrasts throughout the album. Friends and enemies, introversion and extroversion, storms and clear skies. What did the two sides of these perspectives represent for you?
Because of the reflective state of these songs, they sort of come to terms with the duality of a lot of things. Like love in the song “My Dearest Friend and Enemy,” where there's a duality between loving someone so much that you see both sides of that – of how much you can help each other move forward but also how much you can hold each other back sometimes. I guess a lot of it has to do with maturing or maybe just growing a bit older and realizing all the things I thought I knew something about are so much more complex and so much more layered and detailed and there's so much more to it. I'm not saying that I understand something as complex as love now, but I have seen more aspects to it. I've seen more sides of it. And I think that's what, in the end, a lot of the songs sort of feel like. I think there's a lot of existential questioning going on.
We’re always in this repetitive cycle of updating our understanding of things we thought we knew with new information and reflections. How did you develop an understanding of these complexities during the pandemic, and with all of the time in between these two records?
The years before, my life changed so drastically in such a short amount of time. When we released the first record, and even before that, we were touring all the time, so I didn't really even have the time to reflect on everything that was happening. I was a student before that, you know, and then suddenly it's a career and I’m going out to all these new places and meeting all these new people. And so a lot of that reflecting and new understandings of things only had the chance to be there when I was home again — and when I was also being confronted with all the things maybe I had neglected over the years, because I was doing this one thing in a very focused way. It just catches up to you.
I remember I was doubting everything. Like, I've been gone for so long, do people still care? Life at home just went on and I wasn't there for a lot of important moments in people's lives, important people to me. I made new friends, some friendships that were already there became stronger over these last years, and of course love was a big one. All those complexities and stuff that was a bit neglected before came to light over the last couple of years — and then also this existential thing about this whole career in music.
Have you found that having this solitary reflection and introspection has informed your approach to your external relationships, too?
I know that I'm an introvert and that I find it hard to open up. That was also a big part of why I was so weary about friendship. When you start to feel like, ah, this is a real friendship — it’s also when you can be vulnerable with each other, like you can open up. That taught me a lot. It’s funny because in New York, going there by myself, that was a very good exercise for me to sort of step into the unknown and, when I met people, [to] just to try to be in that state of mind, opening up a bit more. You really have to tell somebody when you like them or when you like hanging out with them or whatever, because it's such a big city that if you don't, you're very likely to lose touch. I normally take ages to open up in that way. In Antwerp, where I still live, it's such a small city that honestly if you make a new friend at a party and you forgot to exchange phone numbers, there's a very big chance you will meet them at the next party, you know. But in New York, it doesn't really work that way.
You also began exploring meditation more during this time. How has that practice of sitting in stillness helped you since?
The first few times I tried it, I just couldn't stand it. I was so annoyed by my own thoughts because my interpretation of meditation was: for 10 minutes, you try to have no thoughts. But as I did it more often, I realized, it's okay to have thoughts while you're meditating. The practice is to take a step away from them and observe them, rather than that they overtake you and become you in a way.
That's been very helpful in many situations, whether it’s a conversation or while I'm writing songs. It teaches me to be an observer of my own emotions and my own thoughts. It also comes back to connection. In a way, it allows me to be in a more open state of being in order to connect better. It's such a help.
Tell me about the different instruments you used on this record – what did you need Sahar to sound in order to properly communicate the emotions you deliver in the lyrics?
The songwriting was very solitary, but, of course the recording was very much a group effort. We invited a lot of musicians in the studio that we hadn't worked with before. What we quickly noticed was that that sort of haziness to it that really felt good, which I guess is mostly represented by the noise that’s sort of interweaved in all the songs – it’s a lot of noise and weird things going on underneath the songs. To me, that's something very particular about this record, this use of textures.
Also, getting the oud was a very important instrument for me. I learned how to play it better over the last couple of years, thanks to a Syrian teacher here in Antwerp. That instrument just both sonically and in the songwriting was very inspiring. On the first album, I used a lot of electric guitars, and then this one has a lot of acoustics. So, it's like this play between the nylon strings of the oud and the nylon strings of the classical guitar that makes a very particular sound on a lot of the songs — I'm thinking of “The Flame” or “The First Disciple” in particular.
This time we didn't really have a plan. It was quite playful. I mean, maybe people think that's a bit strange if they listen to the record, but it was a really playful process. While, for example, I was recording a bit on the guitar, Colin was writing his baseline in the other studio with headphones on and jamming out in his own world and then coming into the other studio showing what he made.
When you're listening to it, it almost feels like you're in that same headspace of calm and serenity in a way. Why was it important to replicate the atmosphere of the environment you were working in while writing this record?
When I listen to it, I feel like I'm thrown back into those spaces and those rooms, because a lot of the recordings that I made at home made it to the record, a lot of the oud was recorded in the room that I'm sitting in right now. And the sound of that room is also present in the record. It was really something that was assembling itself along the way as we were recording.
It's always a matter of feeling. So far in my creative process, I've not really been a concept creator. I've never really worked from concepts. But ithe first record sounds more bombastic at times, and a bit bigger. This time, I just wasn't in that space. So I guess it's very logical that it's more roomy and it's more intimate. It pulls you in.