Every classically trained pop musician has travelled a route that began with musical orthodoxy, discipline, structure and attainment, and then, in the embracing of pop's far less formal yet still time-honoured traditions, involved both an un-learning – the best pop music should surely be, and is, about breaking rules, not sticking to them – and a fidelity to the sounds and textures they were immersed in as children and adolescents. Artists such as St Vincent, Joanna Newsom, The National's Dessner brothers, Laura Mvula, Matt Bellamy of Muse, Agnes Obel, James Blake, Susanne Sundfor, Jeff Buckley and Julia Holter all managed that transition seamlessly: they stepped across to the "other side", as it were, and established storied reputations in their adopted field. Crucially, in doing so, they kept, too, a firm grip on the musical touchstones that first led them to devote their lives to creativity. 

To that illustrious list can now be added a new name. Of Belgian, Egyptian and Lebanese heritage, the 21-year-old musician Tamino's British debut single is a song of such startling, visceral, sit-up-and-listen power, it is as if the singer has arrived, out of nowhere, fully formed. Habibi (Arabic for "my love" or "beloved") is one of those songs that makes a mockery of questions of era and genre. Aptly, from a musician whose upbringing and trans-nationality elude narrow questions of provenance and pigeonholes, it is at once ancient and modern, conjuring, in its portrayal of a love that is majestic but doomed, the romantic decadence of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet and the scorched-earth, ripped-from-the-heart poetry of Nick Cave. Musically, it is, like so much pop today, all over the place, uncategorisable, gloriously impervious to considerations of style, fashion and commerce. In that sense, it is totally now. At the same time, there is something so other-worldly, so defiantly individualistic, about Tamino's songwriting, his octave-traversing voice and ethereal falsetto that attempting to categorise them, or him, quickly seems futile.

"For as long as I can remember, I've sung like that," the singer says. "Obviously, as a kid, your voice sounds like that anyway, before it breaks. When it did, I remember sitting at the piano, writing really shitty songs, and that was still the voice I used. Very early on, I realised I had this range, and that I could play with it; I never felt that I should sing in just one particular register. Even when I was writing terrible punk songs, I used that voice. That was my first band, and it was a curious one, because of that."


Another unmissable feature of Tamino's music is his use of Arabic vocal and tonal inflections. They crept in, he says, and it took him a while to realise. "At first, it wasn't at all deliberate, they just slipped in to the music. I wasn't even aware that I was doing it." Yet the aim has, Tamino emphasises, always been to find unusual combinations, to join the dots and in the process locate new sounds and textures. "Classical music is our heritage, and we need to be aware of it, learn from it. Everything, each musical tradition, it's all connected. It's the same with Arabic quarter notes. I grew up with them, so they're natural to me, but for a lot of people, they sound off-key. I think they're beautiful, but for Western ears, they're in-between, neither one thing nor the other. But I think that's good!" 

Tamino – named after the hero of Mozart's The Magic Flute – began singing early, hollering along to the music (the Beatles, Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Waits, opera, jazz) his mother played at home. He also started learning piano, and was soon immersed in the works of Bach, drawn inexorably to their precision and simplicity. "That's stayed with me. I really love to keep things simple. If you think of Erk Satie, you realise that just a note, just a chord, can convey this immense amount of emotion. I love Rachmaninov, because it amazes me. But Satie moves me. There is such stillness and feeling in his music. And being touched by something strikes me as more profound than being amazed. I still play Satie, he teaches me such a lot. And a bit of Chopin. But I don't have the patience for Bach, however much I love his music." 

That same restlessness distracted Tamino from his piano studies when he was younger, as he gravitated towards pop. He first performed live as a 14-year-old. Three years earlier, he had reunited with his father (his parents divorced when he was three), and once again began going to Egypt on a regular basis. Visiting his grandmother one day – her first husband, Tamino's grandfather, was the famous Egyptian singer and actor Moharam Fouad, described at the height of his success as "The Sound of the Nile" – Tamino made a discovery that would prove crucial to his writing. "I was sorting through a storage cupboard and I found my grandfather's Resonator guitar; it was just lying there. I remember thinking: 'What the fuck!' My grandmother was like: take it, have it. I brought it back to Belgium and had this urgent sense that I had to play it. And within a month, I could. I was completely obsessed with it. Now, I play it when I perform live. It originally belonged to one of the best guitarists in Egypt, and was made especially for him. And then he gave it my grandfather shortly before he died, so it meant a huge amount to my grandfather, who had been gifted it by his great friend. And now, its journey continues." 

Tamino credits his mother with instilling in him the belief that creativity should be prized over commerce. "What was really cool was that there was never any talk along the lines of, 'The main thing is to make money.' Never. The whole thing was, do what you love, and maybe you'll make a living from it. And that allowed me and my brothers to have free minds, and to approach art from the right direction. I would never have made songs like these with the other approach; my mind wouldn't have let me. That's a real blessing if you think about it, because you grow up thinking about art in terms of passion, of the vital need to create things, the urge to do it." 

Although he often travels to Egypt, he sees himself as fundamentally Belgian, though he senses that this will change over time. "When I go back there, I feel very European. I went to Lebanon a little while ago too. I love both countries, but the moments when I really feel a connection are musical ones. I had a lesson in Lebanon with a Syrian oud player, a refugee. It was the first time I consciously sang quarter notes, and he said: 'You're a natural, it's in your blood.' That was the moment where I suddenly felt: 'I've landed.' Part of me feels like it was always there, this sensitivity to it, this heritage. I just didn't have the knowledge. I'm still learning about it, but the process has begun. I'm sure it will be never-ending. The oud teacher could hardly speak English, but we spoke through the music. That was when I finally felt at home. It was the same in Egypt. It's such a beautiful country, but I often feel like I'm looking at it as an outsider, which of course in one sense I am. But the music … the music speaks to me, and I am starting to understand its language, which thrills me." 

The success in Belgium of Tamino's debut EP – which includes Habibi, and will be released in Britain in May – has both surprised and slightly unsettled him, he says. "When I released Habibi, it got on the radio very quickly – I'm still not sure how. It's not your general pop song, after all. Before we recorded the EP, I wrote dozens of songs, without a thought or a care. It's a very different experience writing songs now. When I made the EP, it was like: 'Ok, these five songs fit together.' But you can't control people's reactions: they will put me in a genre, and maybe expect more of that genre. So I'm definitely aware of an audience in a way that I wasn't before. But when I make music, I try to turn the volume down, if you like; to drown out that voice. That's essential, or you just end up repeating yourself. In a way, the aim of the EP was to free me from expectations. The songs are very diverse, and that gives me freedom. Well, I hope it does!" 

Infectiously passionate about what he does, Tamino says that the greatest joy in writing comes from not understanding the mechanism, rather than seeking to pinpoint the process. He can talk with zeal about David Bowie or Nick Cave one minute, Bach the next. “The best art is the art that you don't completely understand, where there's this stubborn grey area, as David Bowie said. Where you never quite know. Mystery is underrated. 

"Not knowing how or why you write something, or quite where a song comes from, that's not a problem for me; it's the part of that I love the most. I remember coming up with the melody for Habibi and then using that word, and feeling a bit unsure, and thinking, 'Should I just sing My baby?' But that would have been terrible. And then I thought, 'Of course I can say Habibi, it's a beautiful word in a beautiful language, and I have a whole family that speaks that language. And the word was said to me all the time when I was a child. Melodically and harmonically, it was definitely a doorway, too – though I only realised that later, when I heard where I was going with my writing, and thought: 'Ah, ok. Now I get it.' Well, part of it anyway. And who wants to understand it all?"



1. Persephone (Live)
2. Indigo Night (Live ft. Colin Greenwood)
3. So It Goes (Live ft. Colin Greenwood)
4. Seasons (Live - Chris Cornell Cover)