Hamza Namira is a star in the Arab world, but he prefers the quiet life of suburban London.
His acclaimed work may be inspired by classical Arabic poetry and Middle Eastern folk music but the sound is crisp, modern and with the adventurous arrangements of indie rock.
Namira's biggest achievement, however, is managing to be a pop star without losing his independence.
“I still work and function like an indie artist,” he tells The National before a concert at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Saturday.
“Generally speaking, more people can do that now too. With technology making producing easier and the greater distribution that comes with music platforms, independent artists can now work hard and focus on their passion while being able to make a living.”
For the last decade, Namira has built a dedicated following with songs eschewing the escapism of mainstream Arabic pop for reflections on everyday life with all its hopes, struggles and fears.
“We have been mostly listening to the same kind of pop songs about relationships and that is unfair,” Namira says. “Listen, I do write love songs too but there is more to our lives than only that subject.”
Light and shade
Namira explores this gamut of emotions with his fifth album, the introspective and sprightly Mawlood Sanat 80.
Released in 2020, the autobiographical nature of the release is underscored by the title, translated to “born in the year ’80”.
Recorded during the stringent safety measures imposed by UK authorities during the first year of the pandemic, its dozen songs are inspired by those chastened circumstances.
El Saa'a 6 Sabahan (6 in the Morning) details the strolls Namira took each morning to "clear my worries" while Faady Shuwayya (A Bit Idle) finds him reflecting on the passing of time and the opportunities spurned along the way. And Ahkeelak Khofy (Tell You About My Fear) is a love song laced with as much affection as doubts.
Despite the emotionally tumultuous ground covered, the arrangements and production are pleasingly light and feature euphoric synths, open guitar chords and, in the case of Ahkeelak Khofy, a jaunty reggae guitar riff.
That push and pull between darker lyrics and sunny arrangements, Namira says, echo the tension of the recording process.
"There were all these restrictions and uncertainty happening because of the pandemic and it really made me reflect about my life and my own worries," he says.
"I realised the best thing I can do is write some songs and really challenge myself to complete an album under these circumstances.
“This way, I can change these negative experiences into a more positive one."
Talking about a revolution
Namira built a career by making the best of his circumstances.
Born in Ad Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, it was a childhood of simple pleasures and long bus rides.
"This is before what Ad Diriyah is now and the amazing developments," he says.
"It was a village life essentially and with not many roads available at the time, and the ride to school each day was nearly an hour."
Expressing interest in music at an early age, Namira's parents arranged private lessons that ultimately proved unfruitful.
It was in Alexandria as a university student — the Egyptian city he describes as the "home of the Egyptian indie scene" — where he developed his interest in learning guitar, oud and keyboard.
He formed his own music group with fellow students called Nomaira, building a fan base among the city's university circuit before eventually going solo.
It is an origin story Namira stresses to counter some of the reported commentary claiming his popularity is attributed to the Arab uprisings.
His second album Insan, released in July 2011 and in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, is full of hard-hitting songs addressing the social dislocation of his homeland, particularly El-Midan (The Square) and Esmy Masr (My Name is Egypt).
“It is a little unfair to condense my career to one or two events because I have 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 experienced and was affected by, but it hasn't been a big influence with my work and I do think with more projects I released, people began to understand that.”
A favourite initiative of Namira is Remix, a television series he hosts on the pan-Arab network Al Araby, where he explores different aspects of regional folk music and poetry, with works highlighted from Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Armenia and Kurdistan.
He confirms a fourth season is on the way later this year.
“It showed me and the audience the amount of depth and character of the music from our region,” he says.
“The poetry is absolutely beautiful but it is the melodies for me that hit the hardest.
“When it comes to these old songs from the Arab world, the songs were not fully developed when it comes to structure. So melody was everything and that’s where it got its power from.”
Namira is looking forward to pausing those shoots and 6am London walks 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 get out again and hang out with Arabic people from around the world,” he says. “It will be great to all come and share our experiences.”
Hamza Namira performs at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Saturday at 8pm. Tickets begin from Dh150; culturalfoundation.ae