'Music Was Always The Escape': Omar Kamal On Shaping His Artistic Identity The Palestinian jazz crooner, who was 8 years old at the start of the Second Intifada, says hearing Frank Sinatra changed his life. "[He] has got all credit for me going into singing," Kamal says.

'Music Was Always The Escape': Omar Kamal On Shaping His Artistic Identity

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. And Rachel, are you game for some reporting from the Middle East that is going to sound really different?

MARTIN: Sure.

GREENE: All right.

MARTIN: Let's do it.

GREENE: Just listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY TRY TO CHANGE ME NOW?")

OMAR KAMAL: (Singing) I'm sentimental, so I walk in the rain.

MARTIN: Wow. That is not what I was expecting and very beautiful.

GREENE: Yeah, they call him the Palestinian Frank Sinatra. And I've got to say, when we were recording this interview, I think I might have seen some of our colleagues blushing.

MARTIN: I happen to have seen a picture of this guy floating around - quite good looking, easy on the eyes. Tell me more about him.

GREENE: So his name's Omar Kamal. He's 24 years old - yeah, certifiable heartthrob. He's a jazz crooner. He was born in Nablus, which is a town on the West Bank, that he says is quiet now. But he grew up there during a really turbulent time. He was 8 years old and the uprising that's known as the second intifada was going on - roadblocks, curfews all around the town. And he spent a lot of time in the safety of his own home.

KAMAL: It wasn't really open to the world and, hence, there wasn't much to do in terms of going out and restaurants and things like that. So it was always whatever you can do at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY TRY TO CHANGE ME NOW?")

KAMAL: (Singing) I sit and daydream. I got daydreams galore.

I'm not trying to pick this up from a fairy tale, but I think music was always the escape from your reality - to have that little space where you can be creative and kind of dream and move away from everything that's happened around you.

GREENE: And that longing for escape came as he was learning piano. And one voice, one song grabbed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY ME TO THE MOON")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Fly me to the moon. Let me play among the stars. And let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. In other words...

KAMAL: From there, it kind of developed into an obsession. But I think Frank Sinatra (laughter) has got all credit for me going into singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS TIME GOES BY")

KAMAL: (Singing) You must remember this. A kiss is still a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh.

GREENE: So this music is from Omar Kamal's first album, "Serenade," that is out soon. He worked with an extraordinary cast of veteran producers and actually recorded some of the songs at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood, where Frank Sinatra recorded.

That must've been amazing.

KAMAL: Yes. Yes, that was really - that was surreal. I mean - and someone told me that the microphone that I sang on was Sinatra's...

GREENE: What?

KAMAL: ...Microphone. Yeah, I don't know. I don't know if that was just a myth, but...

GREENE: That's incredible. I would have thought they would have updated microphones by this point. But that's awesome.

(LAUGHTER)

KAMAL: No, those microphones are just keepers.

GREENE: Were you nervous?

KAMAL: I was very nervous. I was very nervous. I was trying, you know, to keep it together around all of these people. But it was a great experience.

GREENE: And one of his producers had this crazy idea. I mean, if he can pull off Frank Sinatra, what about Bruce Springsteen?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE")

KAMAL: (Singing) You're riding in my car. I turn on the radio. I'm pulling you close. You just say no.

GREENE: Of course, he did put his own spin on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE")

KAMAL: (Singing) When we kiss - oh, fire.

So it starts out with the original bass line. And then suddenly at midway through, you've got this transition in the rhythm. And it then starts swinging.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE")

KAMAL: (Singing) You had a hold on me right from the start, a grip so tight I couldn't tear it apart. My nerves all jumping, acting like a fool. Your kisses, they burn, but my heart stays cool.

GREENE: Well - how do your songs go over with Palestinian audiences?

KAMAL: Yeah, this is a tricky one. People here in Palestine really appreciate what I'm doing and the way I'm going about it. But it's a question of taste in music because music is always related to your culture. But I think it's going to take some time to get more people on board.

GREENE: Because I wondered - I mean, you know, there are other Palestinian musicians who will sing nationalistic songs and will sing for a cause. And I guess I was curious if there's that expectation and you face some disappointment from people who would rather be hearing you use your talents in that way.

KAMAL: I think there's a time and place for each. I think it comes down to your art and what you want to do. You know, you can't always be that type of artist or the other, you know. Or at least for me, I want to explore as many genres and areas as I can.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINDMILLLS OF YOUR MIND")

KAMAL: (Singing) Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel - never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel

GREENE: Now, in one interview, Omar Kamal had said that being a Palestinian musician can be a good thing and also a bad thing. And I asked him what he meant by that.

KAMAL: It's kind of a tricky one for me and for my background. And you might have racism all over the world, and racism is vicious and can always affect people, doesn't matter where they come from. So - and me being a Palestinian might have that card played against me. So...

GREENE: I hear you saying that there's no way to get away from the politics and that there are some people who might embrace you and want to support you because of everything that you have been through. And there are some people who, as you were saying, because of racism and so forth, might shun you. And there's just no way to get away from that judgment.

KAMAL: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But in both cases, you know, I would hate to be a charity artist that, you know, people just support for his backstory. I mean, I just want to be presented with the same, equal opportunity as everyone else as an artist.

GREENE: Do you have one of your pianos nearby?

KAMAL: Yeah. Actually, I have a couple (laughter).

GREENE: Is there something you could play for a minute or so as we say goodbye?

KAMAL: Yeah, yeah. OK. I'm just going to try.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

KAMAL: I haven't played this for some time now.

(Vocalizing to the tune of "Fly Me To The Moon").

(Singing) Fly me to the moon. Let me play up there with those stars.

MARTIN: I mean, come on.

GREENE: (Laughter) Rachel Martin, your face looks like you're enjoying this.

MARTIN: Yes. Yes, I am.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. That is Omar Kamal. He's a Palestinian musician. And his new album, "Serenade," is coming out next month. And you heard him right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin.

KAMAL: (Singing) In other words, darling, kiss me.

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