In Depth with Bassel Almadani of Bassel and the Supernaturals

In Depth with Bassel Almadani of Bassel and the Supernaturals

Music is one of the most effective communication tools in humanity’s arsenal; it removes the tension and adverse circumstantial aspects of other forms of messaging, and people can get lost in a song and be inspired by the message. Bassel and the Supernaturals, a Chicago-based seven-piece soul-funk outfit, are on the scene with their piercing, radiant songwriting and a point to make. The brains behind the operating, Syrian-American Bassel Almadani, took some time out of his day at Summer Camp to share with me some of his passions and why he believes music is the best way to get those ideas across. Our conversation touched on some fairly intense subject matter, and I am happy to have been able to help share his message with you, the readers.

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First off, I was curious about the way the songs are fleshed out and put together before they hit the stage. Bassel explains: “It’s collaborative. It really depends on the song. The nature of the song ‘Lost’ was inspired lyrically, and then brought to the table and we fleshed out the rest of it as a group. That song in particular is deeply personal and emotional. It happened shortly after the death of my cousin in Syria. It was inspired by that, and also the loss of several key personal items and that frantic feeling of loss that brought those feelings and emotions together into something relatable.”

As mentioned above, Bassel is using Chicago as his current base of operations. He told me a little about his experience moving to the Windy City from Ohio: “I’ve been writing music for well over a decade. Moved to Chicago seven years ago, and that’s when I first formed the full band and made the move from singer-songwriter. I grew up on playing violin and drums and was always very deep into songwriting. When I moved to Chicago, I knew I would be in a place semi-permanently, so I wanted to branch out. I met a lot of musicians and quickly formed a full group and it’s grown a lot over the years. This particular crew of people I’ve been working with for the last 3-4 years I would say. There are so many people involved with the group.”

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As for the group itself, he elaborated on the current incarnation, as well as the shapeshifting nature of the outfit: “We’ve been traveling lately as a 7-piece. Drums, bass, vocals, keys, guitar, sax, and trumpet. So still a sizeable amount of people. On our last album, there were a lot of featured artists, a string section, woodwind, auxiliary percussion, backing vocals. The number can grow exponentially. But this has actually been a good, condensed version of the group, believe it or not. Especially with our new album, the horns play this really unique voice all throughout the album, and you really miss it when it’s gone, it’s not really just an auxiliary layer, you kind of have to have them around. Plus they’re smaller people and can fit in smaller places in the vehicle, so it’s efficient (laughs).”

I’m always interested to hear about how larger groups deal with life on the road. Touring is a grueling aspect in the life of any musician dedicated to making it work out there in the big world, and Bassel shared some of his thoughts on the matter: “Always a lot happening with that many people on the road. Generally our more creative stretches happen when we’re not on the road, but I do find that when we’re on the road in particular, when we’re playing through the same set of songs (not the same set list, cause we rotate the set list pretty consistently and keep it fresh) that we react to certain aspects of the song. That’s one of the main aspects of our group is the improvisational aspect and keeping it interesting and unique. If we’re having fun onstage then the audience will have fun. I do find that every time we play, playing those songs every night, it’s less a point of remembering how to play a song every night, it’s digging really deep into details and maybe the bassist does something completely different, and we all vibe off that and find ourselves doing something really fresh and creative each time. So a lot of times that does inspire new ideas that we do later revisit and rehash into something else when we get back in town. When we tour right now, we do maybe an extended weekend, a week or two weeks, in smaller pieces, because we all have a lot going on, but it has been steadily increasing, and we’ll have to keep finding ways to write, because that’s what got us together.”

One of Bassel’s main objectives with his music is to shed light on a humanitarian issue to which there is no easy answer, and which is often colored by politics here in America: the ongoing civil war and displacement in Syria. He shared some thoughts with me about why the music environment had been an effective way to get his point across without scaring people away: “From the business side of it, I think particularly because we have this humanitarian element to what we do, it has been a really impactful way to connect with people who are also similarly invested in this cause. A lot of times they’re university students and leading social justice organizations, or they’re connected to a particular cultural center or church somewhere, and they care about this issue, and we can create an engaging and fun environment around this to help expand their demographic and the people hearing this message through a way that isn’t overly politicized or uncomfortable. It’s a fun and safe place, yet there is this deep personal connection to this issue. So that’s been the biggest impact, being able to connect with people all across the country that I never would have been able to with these social media campaigns. And then definitely, with our fans. Last month we did a live session with Paste in NYC. We do it as a Facebook live, and then we can share from our pages, the individual bandmates can share from their pages, and then you have thousands and thousands of people streaming in all across the country. Otherwise, how would they have been introduced to our music? What’s nice about that too is that Facebook live we’ll play a song, the fans will ask questions, and they’ll catch us in our environment.”

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After learning all of this, I was deeply curious as to his thoughts on why people are so reticent to get involved in this issue, and why no one seems to know where to turn for the truth. Bassel reiterated his points about the way music reaches people in ways that otherwise might be unattainable: “I mean it’s a mix [of factors]. There are still people who are just deeply active with human rights initiatives and social justice issues. I think what’s powerful about our channel is that it activates people who are music and entertainment lovers looking for a story, and to be able to connect to that.

Bassel continued, “That’s what moves us with music is creating that emotional connection. A lot of times whether somebody is already politically or humanitarian-leaning and incentivized to connect to this issue, and when they think of something like Syria which is super over-politicized in the media, there are a lot of layers to it, so people tend to just get overwhelmed by the thought of it or the inability to make a direct and positive impact on it, that they can’t help but kind of back away from that issue and just kind of be in their element. So what’s nice about doing it through music, and especially soul music, it’s effective when you create that emotional connection to the listener, and you’re telling a story. You can read it in every word I’m singing, the way that I’m singing it, the body language, and feel that there is truth to it, so you feel compelled to listen and engage in this story and remove the sense of politics, and feel the connection to the eleven million people that are drawn into the middle of this issue and are currently displaced all over the world, and to connect to it. So not just through the news. It creates a comfortable environment, and I always make it a point to be very accessible. I give out my phone number and email at shows, so if someone hears something and they want to hear more about the story, or if I mention a charity organization and they want to learn more about it, they know there is somebody they can ask a question to, and they don’t have to feel overwhelmed or unintelligent, because so many people feel uninformed about Syria. I want to create that space where people can ask questions, because no question is dumb, and this issue is crucial, and we have to act now.”

To that effect, I asked him to share some of the organizations and means that he has found to be effective in doing good work in the here-and-now with regards to Syria. He had some great answers if you’re looking for a way to get involved in a meaningful way: “I work with a few different charity organizations. I don’t work for one and I didn’t create one [a charity], it’s all collaborations. The one that we’ve done the most work with is based in Illinois, the Karam Foundation, and they are non-profit, US based, and their whole mission is based around building a better future for Syria through sustainable development and going to the refugee camps, empowering children, getting them back in schools, and giving them the means to get back on their feet and steer the future of their country. That’s the reality: it’s their last resort to leave that country. What would it take for you to uproot your entire life and leave your home? So they are doing their due diligence to restore a sense of normalcy and empower them to steer the future of their country or to stay connected to arts, whatever their initiative is to become a productive member of society. Karam Foundation is just outside of Chicago, right in our backyard. They do fantastic work. There’s another one I’m doing a lot more collaboration with too, the Syrian American Medical Society. They are doing some incredibly high impact work, getting into Syria, providing urgent care. A lot of the abandoned schools that are being turned into hospitals and barely functioning, they are providing equipment and volunteer doctors to get in there and provide that care, or going into the refugee camps where a lot of these refugees have diabetes or cancer, and just aren’t getting treatments. A lot of these deaths are happening are because people aren’t able to get that preventive care or ongoing care when they have a condition. So they are able to provide a lot of care through volunteer work, and they have 25 chapters in the US all across the country. So we are planning some national tour dates in partnership with them, and I’m really excited to amplify the amazing work that they’re doing.”

He went on, explaining: “There’s another group called the Syrian American Council in DC. They do a lot of advocacy work for the Syrian community in the States, with regards to refugee policy and consistently writing press releases in response to what’s happening. When people think about this issue, it’s where do you want to step up and make a difference? Domestic policy, medical care, on the ground work to help the people in Syria? If you’re more interested in helping children and families get back on their feet these are some great places to start, and I am glad to be able to advocate for several, because there are different ways to help.”

For those looking to check out some super funky, soulful, inspiring music with a humanitarian goal, Bassel provided the answer: “We just released a new record in February, on vinyl, CD, and preloaded USB cards which have both of the albums, six live videos, and two music videos all preloaded. Super helpful to get you accustomed to our music. We also have t-shirts and stuff like that at basselmusic.com, and in addition, 20% of our merch profits goes straight to Karam Foundation.”

I cannot recommend Bassel & the Supernaturals enough. Not only are they a gritty, soul-ripping, horntastic funk group, but they have a vision and purpose through Bassel’s passion and personal experience with one of the world’s most difficult and misunderstood crises, and a platform to share the message in a non-threatening and productive way. Check them out and get involved.

For more information: https://www.basselmusic.com/

Photo credit: Michael Litchfield.

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