Meet the West Bank crooner who's turning heads in jazz circles
- 20 March 2017
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To hear Omar Kamal break into “Fly Me to the Moon” is enough to understand why his deep baritone has been compared to Frank Sinatra’s. The rich, smoky timbre of his voice conjures up Ol’ Blue Eyes straight away, something the 24-year-old has used to good effect on his debut album Serenade.
From the first single off the 13-track EP, Michael Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good”, to a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water”, he spans genres with artful ease and taps into our current love for all things retro with a treacly voice that gets under the listener’s skin. It’s also a bold first step towards achieving his musical ambition.
Kamal was born and raised in the West Bank city of Nablus and studied engineering at Cardiff University. Rather than focus on the hardship or the political issues facing his countrymen, he’s channelling his message through songs that people know and love. Growing up, he used music as an escape from events around him, particularly during the turbulent years of the second intifada, which began when he was a boy of eight.
“There were times during the second intifada which were difficult with curfews and restrictions, but during these times … I explored my passion and love for music. I had time to sit with my piano and play the music which I enjoyed with the family also,” he said. Since his father travelled a lot, there was an eclectic range of music at home, and Kamal was exposed to Arabic stars such as Fayrouz and Abdelwahab as well as the Western classical and jazz greats.
“Music gave me a lot of happiness and enjoyment during my childhood,” he added. “I would like my music to give people, not just in Palestine but all over the world, the enjoyment and happiness it once gave me during some of the difficult times in my life.”
During those formative years, solace also came from spirituality. “Spirituality is exceptionally important in life. It's what gives someone internal peace and happiness,” Kamal said.
Somewhere in that mix, he found that he had an appetite for success and distinction. He began singing in public as a teenager, even travelling with his music. After several concerts in Palestine, he was picked up by Sony’s Middle Eastern arm but remained grounded enough to continue looking for a “real job”.
The first track he laid down was “Windmills of Your Mind”. “It was straight after a job interview I was applying for in London, and the demo that we laid down that day was the one you can hear on the album,” he said.
“Music is an international language with no barriers, no ‘us’ and ‘them’, no separation. One day, through my music, I would like to bridge the gap between the West and the Middle East through the enjoyment of music,” Omar told My Salaam. “During my time living in the United Kingdom I never felt judged for where I came from; when I was on stage it was all about my music, and this is what I hope to achieve with the rest of the world.”
The Sinatra association continued into the studio. Sony facilitated a collaboration with veteran producers Al Schmitt (who’s worked with Sinatra, Quincy Jones and Natalie Cole), Dave Pierce (Michael Buble, Bryan Adams) and Bob Rock (Bon Jovi, Aerosmith).
“We recorded the album in London, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, [and] I was lucky enough to record in Capital Studios, where Frank Sinatra himself recorded,” he said. In Los Angeles, he also met Tina Sinatra and was able to tell her about the profound impact her father had on him.
Kamal expects the label to disappear with time, particularly as he is now focusing on a collection of original music. He won’t be drawn on where he’s going with his new work or whether he will continue to draw on the events of his childhood, but he hopes people will remember that he did it all his way.