Hamza Namira is a star in the Arab world, but he prefers the quiet life of the London suburbs.
His acclaimed work may be inspired by classic Arabic poetry and Middle Eastern folk music, but the sound is clean, modern and with the adventurous arrangements of indie rock.
Namira’s greatest achievement, however, is managing to be a pop star without losing her independence.
“I still work and function as an independent artist,” he says. The National ahead of a concert at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Saturday.
“Generally speaking, more people can do it now too. With technology facilitating production and the greater distribution that comes with music platforms, independent artists can now work hard and focus on their passion while still being able to make a living.
Over the past decade, Namira has built a devoted following with songs eschewing the escapism of traditional Arabic pop for reflections on everyday life with all of its hopes, struggles and fears.
“We mostly listened to the same kind of pop songs about relationships and it’s unfair,” Namira says. “Look, I write love songs too, but there’s more to our lives than just that.”
light and shadow
Namira explores this range of emotions with her fifth album, introspective and playful. Mawlood Sanat 80.
Released in 2020, the autobiographical character of the release is underlined by the title, translated as “born in the year ’80”.
Recorded during the strict security measures imposed by British authorities during the first year of the pandemic, his dozen songs are inspired by these muted circumstances.
El Saa’a 6 Sabahan (6 a.m.) details the walks Namira took each morning to “dispel my worries” while Faady Shuwayya (A Bit Idle) finds him reflecting on the passage of time and the missed opportunities along the way. And Ahkeelak Khofy (Tell You About My Fear) is a love song imbued with as much affection as doubt.
Despite the emotionally tumultuous ground covered, the arrangements and production are pleasantly light and feature euphoric synths, open guitar chords and, in the case of Ahkeelak Khofya playful reggae guitar riff.
This back and forth between darker lyrics and sunny arrangements, Namira says, echoes the tension of the recording process.
“There were all these restrictions and uncertainties because of the pandemic and it really made me reflect on my life and my own worries,” he says.
“I realized the best thing I could do was write songs and challenge myself to finish an album under these circumstances.
“That way I can change those negative experiences into a more positive experience.”
Talk about a revolution
Namira has built a career by making the best of her situation.
Born in Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, it was a childhood of simple pleasures and long bus rides.
“It’s before what Ad Diriyah is now and the incredible developments,” he says.
“It was basically village life and with few roads available at the time, and the daily commute to school was nearly an hour.”
Expressing their interest in music from an early age, Namira’s parents arranged private lessons which ultimately proved unsuccessful.
It was in Alexandria as a university student – the Egyptian city he describes as the “home of the Egyptian indie scene” – that he developed his interest in learning guitar, oud and keyboard. .
He formed his own music group with fellow students called Nomaira, building a fanbase among the city’s college circuit before eventually going solo.
It’s an origin story that Namira points out to counter some of the reported comments claiming that her popularity is attributed to the Arab uprisings.
His second album Insanreleased in July 2011 and in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, is packed with hard-hitting songs addressing the social dislocation of his homeland, including El-Midan (The square) and Esmy Masr (My name is Egypt).
“It’s a bit unfair to condense my career to one or two events because I’ve been singing about sociopolitical issues since 2000 and my time with Nomaira,” he says.
“What happened in the Arab Spring is a journey that I went through and affected me, but it didn’t have a big influence on my work and I think with more projects than I came out, people started to understand that.”
A favorite initiative of Namira is Remixa television series he hosts on the pan-Arab channel Al Araby, where he explores different aspects of regional folk music and poetry, with works highlighted from Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to the Armenia and Kurdistan.
It confirms that a fourth season is on the way later this year.
“It showed me and the audience the depth and character of our region’s music,” he says.
“The poetry is absolutely beautiful but it’s the melodies for me that hit the hardest.
“As for these old songs from the Arab world, the songs weren’t fully developed in terms of structure. So the melody was everything and that’s where it got its power.
Namira is looking forward to pausing those shoots and walking at 6 a.m. in London for a few months on the road, with the Abu Dhabi show followed by a European and North American tour.
“It will be good to go out again and spend time with Arabs from all over the world,” he says. “It will be great for everyone to come and share our experiences.”
Hamza Namira performs at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets start from Dh150; cultural foundation.ae
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Updated: July 28, 2022, 08:33