"They stole another story," Bassel Almandini wails in falsetto on "Lost," the lead single from his forthcoming album, Elements with his soul band Bassel and The Supernaturals. "Break off a piece of my soul and bury it underneath the ground." Almandini is a first-generation Syrian-American who lives in Chicago. The song is about his cousin who was killed by a sniper in Aleppo, the Syrian city that became a major battleground in the country's civil war and where the musician spent his summers as a child.
Both of Almandini's parents are from Aleppo and before the crisis almost all of his extended family lived there. Starting in 2012, the city where he once played soccer in the streets with his cousins came under siege, and his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were now in constant danger. He wanted to do something. His music had always dealt with personal feelings and experiences, and suddenly nothing was more personal than the war in Syria, so he started writing about that. Elements, due out February 24, deals directly with the Syrian crisis, translating Almandini's grief and feelings of helplessness into complex soul and funk compositions full of profound emotion.
Even before he started work on Elements, Almandini was taking his band on the road to universities and churches, in an effort raise awareness about what was happening. It's an experience he describes as empowering. Now, the band is donating twenty percent of the album pre-sales to Karam Foundation, whose work includes aiding children in Syria. Ahead of the February 24 release of Elements, Almadini got on the phone with Noisey to talk about combining his music with activism and how he discovered music could help people in the United States connect with a war half a world away.
Noisey: How did you get into soul music?
Bassel Almandini: I got into songwriting late in high school and then, when I moved to Columbus, I went hard in the songwriter direction. When I moved to Chicago, I didn't know a lot of people, and there's that inherent loneliness that comes with moving to a new place. I took time to think about what music means to me and listen to a lot of music, and I found myself listening to a lot of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. I felt this deep emotional connection to that music. This is music that people consider timeless and I had to study that in the context of the music:
That taught me to write from the soul, less about writing "soul music," but music that is emotionally raw and that tells a story. I feel like it becomes soul music because you feel that emotional connection as you're writing it.
How did activist work become a part of your life as a musician?
Activism had always been deeply rooted within me. I was really active with Amnesty International for a really long time and different community organizations, but it wasn't until things got bad in Syria in 2011 that it found its way into the music.
Only my immediate family, my parents and my brothers, are in the States; my entire extended family was [in Syria]. We were sending money to help them get by and distribute to other families in the area to help them get medicine or food or blankets or whatever they needed, but there's this deeper sense of guilt, like, 'Why am I not there? What am I going to do about this?' That's what really ignited my creative connection to this particular issue, because I was thinking so much about it and I wanted to be a voice for my family and for all these people who have been so affected by it. It went in full-force after the loss of my own cousin in Syria. I started writing music more directly about these issues.
Was it difficult to write about these things or did it help you to cope?
Both, I guess. This is the most difficult album I've ever worked on. As I said, there's this underlying sense of guilt because I'm here and not worried that a missile is going to come and hit me today and my family is experiencing that every moment. I need to find a way to tell their story through my lens. It's been a really heavy experience to try and figure out, 'Is this song telling the story that it needs to tell?' But when you come out the other end, it does feel relieving. It was very difficult, but very therapeutic as well.
Can you tell me about your experience performing to raise awareness about the crisis?
I started reaching out to colleges, human-rights organizations, or Arab-American student organizations and doing events with them. What's beautiful about art and music is that it's universal, especially our type of music, which is very traditionally American. [Bassel and the Supernaturals's] demographic is very diverse, so we were able to bring people of different shapes, sizes and colors together around this issue. They're coming and having a good time and listening to the stories and realizing, 'Hey, now I know a person who is affected by this. I know a Syrian-American person now.'
We've been performing in churches as well, which has been very empowering. I'll be in Wichita, Kansas in March working with a church and bringing people together who maybe have never met a Syrian person in their entire life. The types of conversations that have opened up in these churches has been just unreal, you know, the types of questions that we get and the engagement from people who want to do good and don't have the information. It's been inspiring to know that it's not that people are ignoring the issue.
Do you know anyone who was been affected by the still-contested travel ban and the ban on refugees from Syria? What do you think the repercussions will be?
I don't have anybody that has been affected by this because the vetting process was so extreme before the ban that it was next to impossible for any of my own family members to get here. Now it's just sealed and stamped, there's no chance for them. Half of my family is still in Syria, and the other half has found other places that are more welcoming. They're in Germany, or they're in the Emirates or Egypt.
I just think this is the riskiest move that we could make as a country. From what I understand, extremists use the rhetoric and the footage of certain things Donald Trump has said for recruitment. A message of hate is going to create more issues and targeted attacks like we haven't seen. All it does is reinforce their narrative. We should be coming from a compassionate place in order for people to understand that we care and that we want to be helpful and we're doing the exact opposite right now.
Catch Bassel and The Supernaturals on tour:
February 24 | Chicago, IL @ Logan Square Auditorium with The Maytags, Willy Dynomite, Molehill
March 10 | Lincoln, NE @ Zoo Bar
March 11 | Des Moines, IA @ Wooly's with The Maytags, The Candymakers
March 12 | Wichita, KS @ Awakening Wichita
March 14 | Dallas, TX @ Three Links with Friday's Foolery, CoLab
March 15-17 | Austin, TX @ SXSW
March 18 | Tulsa, OK @ Fassler Hall with Henna Roso
March 19 | Lincoln, NE @ Brewsky's Haymarket
Beverly Bryan has got soul on Twitter.