Artist Spotlight: Ahmad Hani - World Class Bass Player Against All Odds
There are countless, everyday stories about the trials and tribulations that have squashed many an inspiring youngster’s dreams of becoming a musician. The cost of equipment for example, or not enough dedication from other band members, or getting married and not having enough time to commit to rehearsals. However, Ahmad Hani’s story about his road to success is far from every day.
“I was born in Egypt,” says Ahmad, “But my family moved to Dubai when I was just one year old, then when I was eighteen, I moved back to Egypt to attend university. I enjoyed learning other languages and dialects at school within multi-national classes. I made friends with students from the likes of India and Sudan. I loved all the sports, but my heart was in music. We always had music of some kind playing around the house as my mother was and still is a classical pianist and at the time, my Uncle adored The Beatles and we also had two TV channels broadcasting in English and Arabic.
I was just 14 when a friend in my class from Palestine introduced me to Iron Maiden. I loved this band, but at the time didn’t really think it was music and I was a little unsure about playing Iron Maiden loud in the house.
In ’97 it was time to look at my future and in my heart, all I wanted was to be a musician, but my father was totally against my wish, he wanted me to study accountancy at university. This was just the start of a very difficult and epic journey for me. I agreed to go to university, but against his wishes, I bought a bass guitar and hid it under my bed. I could only play it unplugged during the night when everyone was asleep.
When the house started to wake up around 5 am, I’d hide it away and go off to university. I had to be careful, as my father said if he found out I was learning an instrument, he would break it over my head. He was that strict. It wouldn’t have gone down well if he knew I was listening and trying to learn Iron Maiden songs.
I had already met musicians at University who were also ‘into Maiden’ and we had arranged to go into a studio. It was all a bit premature as up until then I’d only played bass unplugged in the dead of night without an amp. But you know, this was a milestone in my career, when I heard how my bass could perform through an amp, it was one of the most beautiful things I had experienced to date.”
“During that same year in ’97, when it looked like I might at least be able to enjoy playing live music, the government wanted to ‘get back’ at the people and said, those who are listening to rock music must go to prison, not a normal prison, but one they sent terrorists and elite criminals to. It wasn’t because of rock music, we have Satanists in our country and Jesus, Mohamed and religion were important to Egypt. These people were worshipping Satan.
They said that music played in a rock style was evil. It was in all the newspapers and so my friends and family started to reject me and even said that I should be killed. I was 20 and people were being rounded up. I was in a critical situation and couldn’t listen to music, even my poster of Iron Maiden was destroyed by my family if the police found out, I’d be arrested, they destroyed so many people’s lives.
I was devastated as I was just blooming as a musician. Beforehand I didn’t have a dream or a personality, so let’s say the bass made me and made me someone. All the western music ceased and I wasn’t enjoying university, and while a lot of people were watching and monitoring me. I was still secretly playing the bass at night, it was my ox.
I eventually met someone who had heard about me and who had been released from prison for this music related ‘crime’ and was hungry to play more. He suggested we go into a studio with some other friends he knew. Once again, even though I was learning, I explained that I had not played in a band before, I didn’t even know the names of the strings on my bass or where position C was.
After several months rehearsing we had enough material to organise our own concert, all the time wondering who would show up as we were all still in hiding. We rented a place that accepted us and printed some flyers which we put everywhere. We just thought if we went to prison, at least we tried.
Fifteen people came to that concert, but more and more people heard about it and more gigs followed and helped changed the music scene. I learnt a lot in that band, they shouted out D or E to the guitar player during a song, and they would say major or minor, so I was getting pretty competent on the bass and could soon play all the popular musical styles, whilst still a big fan of heavy metal.
I managed to keep working as an amateur bassist when someone asked me if I wanted to get 20 Egyptian pounds a night playing Arabic pop music, the equivalent of 2 British pounds.
I said I wasn’t that sure of the songs, but they said don’t worry, the audience would have a good time and I’d go home with money in my pocket. I did that for four years, then swapped from all sorts of bands playing different styles, like blues, acoustic blues, rock, metal, Latin and folk for example.”
Ahmad is now respected worldwide as a much sought after bass player with an immense knowledge of music theory and his own percussive fingerpicking style, but it’s now quite apparent it didn’t come easy.
“I’m literally self-taught”, says Ahmad, “It had to be that way when I was learning as we had all the lockdowns from the Government on the music scene. I had no choice but to learn it all myself, gaining knowledge and developing my own playing style along the way, which I’ve adapted to the fretless bass which I adore. I first became dedicated to the fretless bass in 1998 when I decided to play songs based on a live concert album called Pressure Points, by the English progressive rock band called Camel.
I also became heavily involved with jazz and jazz fusion theory which I practised at home still behind my father’s back, although by now he knew I had an instrument as he’d seen me leaving the house with a bass guitar. The situation had improved, he said it was ok as long as I only played during the summer vacations whilst still studying. He still had no idea I was playing in bands and earning money.
By now I was infatuated by the fretless bass and jazz fusion music and a big influence for me was the Grammy Award-winning Egyptian musician called Fathy Salama. I was listening to his records and going to his concerts. When his bass player sadly died in 2001, I actually found the courage to contact him and put myself forward. He asked what styles I played, I mentioned them all, with blues the main theme and explained that I also knew a lot about Arabic music and scales.
He explained how his music was based on jazz fusion, but more like world music and ethnic music mixed with modern harmonisation and with a direction which was jazzier. He was really telling me that I needed to know about ethnic and jazz music. There is a cultural difference, as in Western music you have 12 octaves between the notes of C and C, whilst in ethnic, there are 36. It’s very complicated to explain but when you have mastered the technique you can adapt this to jazz styles.
We played some blues together which we all enjoyed. I left a little sad that I didn’t get the job as his bass player, but secretly honoured just to have shaken his hand. Not long after, he phoned me saying that they had narrowed it down to just two bass players and I was one of them. Apparently, the other guy was very good but didn’t have the soul and spirit for the music that I had shown. He knew that I would give everything I had within my performance and genuinely loved the style of music, so in 2002 we started to tour Europe. It was my first time touring, I really didn’t know what to expect.
The tours continued and the shows were very professional of course and included TV coverage as well. In 2004 I had a phone call from my father who was very tearful and I asked what was wrong? He explained that he was just watching me on TV in another country. I said who me Papa, in another country what was I doing? He said you were playing the bass guitar with someone with a beard.
I owned up and said that I was a musician, a bass player playing with the famous Fathy Salama. He was emotionally overwhelmed and surprised to see his son playing bass in a band on TV that he knew nothing about for the last 8 years, all he could say was, ‘Why wasn’t I wearing something else?’
He was pleased for me, but also wanted me to finish my studies at University, which should have been a four-year course but because of the music and the fact that I hated the course, actually took ten.
In 2008 I had done with Egypt, I felt from day one I wasn’t recognised as a person, so started to look west and moved to Europe. I applied to go to the Vienna jazz college and I was accepted. It’s where I met my wife to be, who was Turkish and we started to live between Turkey and England, where I played a lot of jazz, but in the end, Turkey won and we moved back in 2012 and I stopped playing the big shows and touring in bands. All the time I knew that God had given me a gift and I wanted to go back and love the instrument again and compose my own songs.
In 2010, I went to Istanbul and met luthier Ekrem Özkarpat who is a master at making guitars especially acoustic and basses. At that time, I had around 16 basses but there was always something missing. I wanted an acoustic fretless bass built to my own specifications within the tonewoods and hardware, so I designed the bass I wanted him to make for me. I actually helped in the last stages of completion including the sanding of the body and neck.
It goes without saying that whilst the construction is superb, this big bodied bass is also very vulnerable. Recently my young daughter was playing and knocked it over, all I heard was a soft thud as it hit the floor. Luckily, it was safe and snug inside my Fusion gig bag. It wasn’t even out of tune! I first saw fusion cases in a music shop in Izmir. I was about to go on tour in South Korea and it looked perfect, it was the most expensive in the shop, but it was worth it. The neck brace and body padding inside is excellent. It’s very reassuring to know that your instrument is well protected when travelling.”
To date, Ahmad has recorded and toured the world with his favourite bass and performed with some of the finest musicians on the planet, whilst also a well-respected arranger and composer.
“My compositions come from my heart and soul”, Ahmad explains. “Having worked with so many fine musicians, I didn’t record or write my own songs for over 7 years, I was waiting for the time when I had a band that would perform the songs I had stored in my head. There’s a lot of videos out there now where I’m playing my own material. ‘The Three Jazz Ballads’ for example which I recorded solo in my house, is an illustration of three popular songs I’ve adapted to my own playing style on the fretless bass. Fretless is still my main priority, I love the percussive sound it produces, it harkens back hundreds of years to North Africa where musicians were playing what looks like a fretless bass. Like The Three Jazz Ballads, I have the ability to also compose and perform with an array of different musicians including Heiko Dijker playing tabla drum.”
Ahmad has been teaching music in general along with bass guitar and music theory including those complicated bass scales since 2000, to students ranging from 1 to 70 years of age.
“I think it’s important how a lot of people evaluate bass players. As a bassist myself, I’m facing the challenge where they want to watch bass slapping. My journey has been so much more in depth, even now I still practice daily and acoustically and the guitar is under the bed... but now it’s not a secret anymore.”
About Ahmad Hani: https://www.ahmadhani.com/
Interview by Lars Mullen.
About the Author
With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column.