When London-based Palestinian singer Omar Kamal posted a cover of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ on YouTube six years ago, the comments poured in.
“I thought he was [kidding] me and this is Sinatra singing, but then I noticed the small difference and got mind blown,” one user wrote. “Beautiful.”
“Young Sinatra,” another noted. “Pure pristine.”
Four years later in 2017, Kamal released his debut album — a collection of covers titled ‘Serenade’ — and swiftly became known as the Arab Frank Sinatra. The nickname stuck, shadowing him throughout the album’s press cycle, sometimes overshadowing the man beneath.
But two years on, 27-year-old Kamal is back for another go with his sophomore album ‘Show Me the Light’, beginning to shed the comparisons and come into his own.
On Sunday night, Kamal brings his powerful live show to Dubai Opera, where fans can expect a mixture of Arabic and Western flavours coupled with his resonant vocal performance.
But how exactly did he go from playing piano in Nablus as a child, to getting his Master’s in Cardiff as a young man, to signing a major record deal in his last year of university?
In a sit-down interview with Gulf News tabloid!, Kamal spoke candidly about his journey and why he wants to do it his way.
Take me back to the start of the journey. You grew up in Nablus?
I was there till about 18 years old. But I was travelling a lot in the teen years, going in the summer to festivals and things like that.
At what point did you feel like you wanted to be a musician? At what point did you start singing or performing?
I started at age of 8 or 9, I was playing the piano, and then later, maybe 15, 16, I took up singing.
Were you formally training on the piano?
I think it started just at home playing whatever comes my way. And then slowly I started playing more professionally and playing classical music. I went to a few festivals in Germany and Spain and I did a lot of classical training, but only in the summer. So when I went back to Palestine, it was back to just doing it at home.
Was there anything you could do in Palestine, in terms of being a musician?
Very minimal, I would say. But it was still an incentive to dream about the possibilities. Going to these festivals gave me that lifeline — that this is how it is in the rest of the world. It was just enough for me to keep going in that direction.
What are some of the places you would go for these festivals?
The first one was when I was 14, it was the Wagner festival [Bayreuth Festival]. Are you familiar with the Wagner opera? It’s a very heavy German opera…
Not usual for someone who’s 14, maybe.
No, not usual for anyone, really. It’s a bit heavy and it’s like a six hour opera. But I went there and I survived the whole thing. And it was amazing, a new experience. But at the same time, I was there for a month and I was rubbing shoulders with all these 23, 24 year olds, really professional musicians. So everyone had the attitude of the professional classical world and that also give me a bit of perspective on what it takes to actually train and reach.
Did you come from a musical family?
A: [laughs] I would say they loved music. My mum used to sing, not professionally, but she had a beautiful voice. I say ‘had’ because she stopped singing now, and she used to sing for Fairouz — her name is Fairouz. She had a beautiful voice. My dad is just a music lover.
And then after Nablus, where did you go to?
I went to Cardiff for university. I did five years of engineering, including Master’s in engineering. And then I took a shot at music after that, because the final year of uni, I signed a deal with Sony Music. Obviously, I always wanted to do music. But this was just the right push. It gives you great confidence, too, to enter this world.
Did you go into university with the thought of having a plan B? Or was studying going to be plan A?
Deep down, it was kind of a plan B, but, I wouldn’t say... I mean, the reason I did it was because I wanted an education outside of music. Today I was asked the question: If you went back in time, would you have changed your course of study? And I said no, because engineering for me is more like a way of life. The music industry is a harsh world and it needs a lot of sensible thinking. Music would have been just one perspective.
Obviously, you sing in both Arabic and in English. Some artists would find it easier to amass a dedicated following in English or in Arabic, but it’s a bit hard when you’re doing both.
You’re right, of course. It’s a heavy word to say, [but it’s] kind of a sacrifice to go somewhere in the middle and try and bring them both closer to each other. This is the cultural conversation now. Because like you said, you don’t focus on one audience, you don’t focus on one thing. But you’re doing something bigger in return, which is trying to make a change, whether it’s small or big.
Do you feel like you wouldn’t be true to yourself as a person if you ditched one or the other?
I think so. I feel more comfortable with the Western classical [music], even swing, jazz, that world is more comfortable for me, because that was my main focus. But I also grew up in Palestine, so I know all about Arabic music, I love Arabic music. And it comes into my show because it’s part of who I am. This is where I need both to be together at the same time.
What have been your influences, whether Western or from the Arab world?
I would say Fairouz, because of my mum, and Abdel Wahab and Rahbani, those names come to mind. In the Western world, I would say, of course, Frank Sinatra, but also many of the classical composers who wrote beautiful melodies like [Frederic] Chopin. I go for the obvious greats because there’s a reason why they succeeded.
‘Arab Frank Sinatra’ was the nickname that you fortunately or unfortunately got, I don’t know how you feel about it today.
[laughs] I feel indifferent. Well, no, I mean, like you said, fortunately and unfortunately. Fortunately, because it’s a great honour, a great boost and a great comparison. It’s something that gives you that bit of flare when you’re trying to reach the world. Unfortunate because it becomes a challenge. It becomes something that sticks with you. The challenge is bigger to grow into something else, because if you go to the show, you’ll find out that there are a few songs that are in the swing style, not even Sinatra, but there are many more that are irrelevant to that world.
How did you feel, then, going into your second album? You already had that nickname attached to you. Was there any pressure?
I didn’t think much about that, but with ‘Show Me the Light’, I could have created a complete jazz album in Arabic and English. That would have been the obvious choice. I didn’t want to go for that necessarily… I wanted to almost experiment with the different worlds of music that I like. It was never anything superimposed or unnatural for me.
How would you describe the album, if you had to?
Growth and experimentation. Maybe there’s a bit of boldness in defying the old story and then trying to grow into something else. It’s very musical and cultural at the same time. [On it], you have the musicians that we bring from London, who play the brass, jazzy lines on top of Arabic strings from Istanbul and Arabic percussion, so there was that marriage in one song at a time.
A lot of Palestinian artists who come into the mainstream, like Mohammad Assaf and others, they tend to have a patriotic aspect to their music and success. Did you ever feel the need to either go into that or stay away from it?
See with these questions, I always like to redefine why we’re doing this. So if you’re doing this to just achieve great success, there are many ways to do that, especially these days ... If we eliminate that factor and just think about why we’re doing this, it’s for the love and passion for music — and also, for whatever you as an artist feel like doing spontaneously. When we did ‘Mawtini’ a long time ago, maybe it came at a time when there was something happening in Palestine, but it came from a musical place, because it’s a new arrangement, a new take. I think the intention should never be too choreographed. Sometimes even if you don’t mean it, it could come across as you trying to ride the wave or trying to do something just to get your name out there. I think the message in music is important. I feel less strongly about the message now, because there’s so much that can go wrong. People can take music and slam a different message on it, and it’s such an easy way to manipulate and affect people in such bad ways. And it puts some people off. Because if someone is listening to music just for the sake of music, and you feel like there’s a message there or an agenda or propaganda, you’re put off a little bit. You feel like someone’s trying to put an idea in your head. But as far as the cause, it should always be a part of you. As long as you say you’re Palestinian, I think that’s big enough, as well. Because not everyone wants to hear about the Palestinian cause out there in the world, but when you’re Palestinian and you’re showing something worthwhile, then there’s a lot more interest than trying to be too obvious.
Finally, is there any milestones in your career that you want to tick off the bucket list?
Singing with Fairouz. In serious terms, I want to have enough reason to continue. The music industry is a bit all over the place. So I want to have enough reason to just continue in this world.
Don’t miss it!
Tickets to see Omar Kamal at Dubai Opera are available online from Dh195.