Interview with Bassel
Interview by: Marc Chicoine. Video by: Maxime Usdin. Photography by: Jenna Stoehr
This past memorial day weekend, the WNUR Media Team scurried over to Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, IL. The festival itself was Neverland; a tent city of over 20,000, buried in the forest and along park grounds. Stages featured music across genres, including jam bands, techno, and powwow. Over the course of three days, festival goers developed a rich informal economy and community dynamic. The weekend was filled with craftspeople, many of whom sold, traded, or bartered their wares. Beyond these informal creatives, the stage acts were equally captivating.
Our team had the privilege of interviewing the lead singer, Bassel, of Bassel and the Supernaturals. Bassel, a first generation Syrian American, engages and raises awareness for the Syrian refugee crisis. As an activist, spokesperson, and artist, Bassel plays an important role in creating a dialogue about the problems facing Syrians, both within and outside of the states. This interview provides a lens for his message, which is also highlighted in the band’s 2017 album, Elements. The group gave an outstanding performance at SCAMP, and successfully conveyed their mission. The ensemble directly contributes to The Karam Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing a better future for Syria. Donations are accepted here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Marc: Alright great! So first can you tell us a little about yourself and your band. Where are you guys from?
Bassel: Yes, we’re Bassel and the Supernaturals. I’m Bassel Almadani, and we’re based in Chicago. We’re a 7 piece neo-soul funk ensemble. I’m first generation Syrian American, and we are all some really funky dudes, and we’re at Summer Camp today.
Marc: Thats awesome. How did you meet the members of your band, and are they also Syrian American?
Bassel: They are not Syrian American, but a lot of them are connected to this issue in some way or another. We met through the music scene. I went to Chicago 7 years ago as a songwriter, and been in Chicago performing, getting out there, touring, meeting artists pretty consistently… and met my drummer through Loyola music scene. I met my guitarist through the DePaul scene, and that sort of expanded and I met a lot of musicians between both those schools and my whole funk network just kind of rapidly expanded from there.
Marc: That’s great, so the collegiate scene had a pretty large impact in meeting different artists, and getting out there, at least in Chicago?
Bassel: From the get go, from the get go forsure. And then as I started playing out more often, I really became apart of the soul funk family in Chicago, which is very closely knit. Whether it’s band mates that play in other soul and funk projects, or we all work with each other and sort of become a big collaborative network.
Marc: That’s awesome, and you mentioned there’s a full length album that was recently released in 2017 called Elements? Can you describe your process and some of the trials and tribulations of creating the album, the nature of it, how has it been?
Bassel: We released the album in February, so earlier this year, and it’s full length is Elements, and it was over 2 years in the making. It started tracking in february of 2015. There’s a lot of layers to it, there’s a lot of musicians involved, well beyond our rhythm section, we had a full piece horn section, auxillary percussion, backup vocals, strings, and woodwinds. We really went in and added a lot of textures on to this album. Then earlier this, I guess last year, a little over a year ago, our bassist on the album passed away, like really unexpectedly. He was from the DePaul music scene and was an unbelievably funky dude. And that just kinda put a pause on things as we recalibrated, and we really dug in, and made sure this album sounded as good as it could possibly be, to do diligence to his amazing talent. So we finally released the album in february, and did a pre-order campaign behind the album; donated 3,000 dollars to the Karam Foundation for humanitarian aid in Syria. So ya we had this whole crowd funding campaign going on in December, and we did the donation and then essentially released the album in february, and then hit the road in march. We did a handful of tour dates, we went to South By Southwest, and it’s just been really picking up speed since then.
Marc: So it sounds like the album has been very politically impactful, actually receiving help from donations for the Syrian refugee crisis, and sonically it sounds very interesting. What do you think the message of the album has really been about in general? Contextually what do you talk about within it, motivations of it?
Bassel: Ya well the concept of Elements, there’s a literal component to it, where there’s references to Water and Fire and Earth and the all connect to stories that also relate to these elements. But what brings it all together is that natural order of the world and being above and beyond something that is within our control. Which I believe is a fundamental learning, as it relates to Syria. There are some things that we cannot control related to this, but we have to adapt, and we can’t ignore this crisis that is happening in our backyard, that has been affecting my family members. Even though it does seem beyond anything that one person can have a huge impact on, we have to adapt and we have to stay noisey around this issue and stay connected to this, in a deep way. So ya it definitely relates to Syria in that way, but it also above and beyond that, the circumstance with our Bassist, or just all the obstacles that we’ve experienced in the making of this record.
Marc: You said NOISEY, and actually, I heard you were premiered on NOISEY as well as VICE, and a number of other news outlets. So I’m wondering what is the role that the news and media, and Universities as well, from what it sounds like, what roles have they played in the dissemination of your message?
Bassel: Well last year in particular it played a much bigger role. One thing I didn’t mention after the album was released and we went to South by Southwest, the showcase that we were involved with at South by Southwest was called Contraband, and it featured artists from the countries targeted by the immigration ban. So we represented Syria as part of that showcase. So that led to a lot of national press. We had writers following us for a few days, Al Jazeera… they were coming out of the woodwork, which was really beautiful to see. I’ve been out there talking about Syria for over 6 years because I’m very personally connected to this issue, and I think a lot of people were nervous to get near it, or didn’t want to get political. Even though all these innocent people are dragged into the middle of this issue, and the way that their lives have all been affected, it felt like this political issue that people didn’t want to get near. So it took a lot of connecting with people, getting to know people, and creating collaborations from a trusting place. Not coming in with some message of how people should think. So I think once the election came, and that issue came home, and we had the refugee ban that came to place, I think people felt a need, an urgency, to become connected to this issue, and to make a positive impact. So I think at that point is when something like this showcase at South by Southwest opened up for us as this opportunity, to have this voice on a national platform, and to know that people are hearing and caring about it. So that was, that was really beautiful, and I feel like, particularly since the election, finding people who are more connected to this issue, more student organizations that are seeking us out for performances or speakers, or Q and A engagements, cultural centers and churches, a lot of people that feel like they’ve been sitting around too long and need to act now.
Marc: Yes, that actually leads me perfectly to my last question. Obviously we are a student, University, and community funded radio station. What is the best way for listeners, and people just generalized, to move forward and make an impact on this problem, this crisis? What do you think is the most direct way?
Bassel: I think more than anything, finding a way to stay connected, through experiences like this. I don’t know if, have you guys met a Syrian person before? I always like to ask that…
(Our Media Team shook our heads no)
Bassel: Yes, so I think a lot of times people that I’ve talked to haven’t met a Syrian person, so it feels like an issue that’s super far away. Now when you hear about things in the news, or you hear about a charity organization, you can make a personal connection to that, and it’s a very significant impact. So I think just staying connected to it, and you know being able to personalize that, is a really important step. Engage and go to festivals, you know whatever it is. But above and beyond that there are some amazing organizations in the US that are doing fantastic work, and some right in our backyard. There’s one close to Chicago, in Evanston, called Karam foundation. That’s where we’ve donated a lot of the proceeds from our pre-order and we’re working to consistently donate proceeds from our merchandise, it goes to Karam foundation. Their whole mission centers around building a better future for Syria by empowering children and families, getting them back into schools, providing them with care, transportation to get them to these schools, helping them get back on their feet so they can steer their own futures.
Marc: So it’s a very direct, tangible way to impact.
Bassel: Yes, and there are others, there’s a few other organizations right here in the US. There’s the Syrian American Medical Society, Syrian American Council, and then there’s a lot of others that are doing amazing work, whether it’s for refugees in the states, for refugees right on the border between Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, or refugees inside of syria, that are doing policy work and advocacy. I think just identifying the way that you want to help and seeking out the organizations that are doing that work to really compound the effectiveness of the work they’re doing.
Marc: Ya, we’re all excited to one, see your show at 4 PM, and two, hopefully help spread your message.
Bassel: Thank you brotha, hope it doesn’t stay too muddy!