Artist Spotlight: Usama Allati (Music Exceeds Borders)
Writing the Artist Spotlight feature I get to interview Fusion artists around the planet, how lucky am I? My next Fusion gig bag safari is a return call to the Middle East, Palestine in fact, to interview another incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist, Usama Allati.
We talk about his new project ‘Music Exceeds Borders’, how he grew up on a mixed recipe of classical and flamenco (with a large helping of Western rock) and his love for his ‘monster bass’ he refers to as a ‘spaceship.’
“It’s officially called the Oasis Custom Handmade 9 string Bass, made by Brazilian luthier Mauricio Costa who owns the company MG Bass in Manchester, New Hampshire, USA,” says Usama. “I contacted him in 2017 saying I wanted a bass made to my personal specifications within the tonewoods and hardware. The fingerboard is extra wide to cater for 9 strings which are tuned in 4ths and features a wave design inlaid with wenge, maple and mahogany exotic tonewoods. The 5-piece mahogany/wenge neck is of the straight-through body design, whilst the body itself is constructed from three layers of mahogany capped with imbuia, and it is the one and the only bass of this kind in the Middle East.
Whilst it’s visually very striking on the eye, I have chosen these tonewoods for their sonic characteristics to enhance the tonal frequencies of this incredible extended range bass.
This was my first 9 string bass and when it arrived, I basically slept with it and played it for hours on end just to get used to the physical size and to gain accuracy on the fingerboard. I have to say we’ve bonded very well, however, I still stay focussed because there are a lot of frets and strings. As much as it is fun to play, there’s so much still to learn and it’s always challenging. And it’s huge, I tell you, it’s a space ship” he laughs, “I’ll never run out of notes. I’m so proud to own this bass and be the first MG Bass endorser in the Middle East.”
You are exceptionally accurate in what we often call fretboard geography, in other words, you never miss a note and there are so many on this bass. You also swap back and forth with ‘normal’ six string guitars, how does that feel after such a large bass?
“Whilst multi-strung basses are my leading instrument, I’m actually more familiar with the smaller size of a six string guitar” explains Usama. “From a small boy, I always wanted to play the guitar and started playing flamenco guitar at 6 years old. It was a cold windy night, we were watching TV and I saw The Beatles and I said to my Dad ‘I want to play the guitar’. My Dad encouraged me and enrolled me in the National Conservatory of music where I studied both classical and flamenco guitar for 6 years.”
Now a hugely talented musician and multi-instrumentalist, Usama has worked with ensembles around the world performing and recording authentic music from the Middle East, combining deep and meaningful rhythms with his own arrangements, steeped with jazz and Arabic overtones.
“I’m interested in the different cultures of music here in the Middle East, which can be very versatile within scales and a variety of tones. The Arabic world consists of 21 countries, and whilst the basics are the same, they all have their own musical characteristics. I’ve experimented with this a lot in the past, especially in my band Lamma which was formed in Bethlehem in 2013. Lamma is one of a kind here in the Arab world, we try to go crazy at times and mix jazz music with some Arabic scales playing what we describe as progressive oriental jazz.”
It is, of course, beneficial to have classical training. Being able to understand demi-semiquavers and read music fluently at an early age is essential, but the lure of Western rock music soon steered Usama toward the bass guitar.
“I became a real fan of Western music and the diversity of the bass guitar. I also grew up listening to many styles from AC/DC to jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius ripping lead lines on a fretless bass for example. And Paul McCartney, also Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris going crazy in the video Aces High, that did for me, and I still love ripping out on metal. I felt a monster present saying that I should now take up the bass. The whole concept of the instrument captured me, how it felt to hold and the slow deep tone, I loved it from day one, it’s another world from being a guitarist.
I also play in a 5-piece band called “ Zaid & the Band “ after the famous Palestine singer of the same name. This band is playing more in the style of party rock with the addition of blues and reggae. Bands for me are ongoing, wherever I get the call really, although I have to focus as I’m so busy fitting it all in. I used to play gospel music in the Shepherd’s Gospel Group but sadly I have no time for that anymore as I’m overloaded with work. This is also a busy band, we played a lot of shows and at least 6 big festivals annually here within the Christian communities.
I like to experiment a lot on the bass and play my heart out which I wasn’t allowed to do in the gospel band, of course, I had to stay within the arrangements. I really like the slap technique especially on a 4 string bass but, it has to be fretless as I feel like I’m chained on a fretted fingerboard whilst on a fretless, I have space to go groovy and it can sound great through any amp. I use my Roland GX80 cube which is handy for rehearsals, but for the bigger live shows I use Marshall, sometimes Ampeg and Randall with no effects, I like to hear the sound of the bass and the amp.”
For the best part when you play live, you are creating your own sounds from the heart to the fingers to the fretboard, without drowning the song with too many effects.
“There’s always room for more effects when recording or playing live, but I try to limit the amount. When I choose an effect to use, maybe a Boss chorus for example or even a wah wah on the bass, I enjoy using it, rather than use an effect for the sake of it. I write my own compositions, whilst songs within various bands have been created between us, like the Samer Rashed’s band for example. Samer is a talented jazz violinist from Jerusalem. I’m the bass player for his band and this intricate and yet beautiful music we are touring locally and nationally. We are also working on our second album right now.”
Busy times then for such a talented multi-instrumentalist, and Usama still finds time to organise his new and inspiring project called Music Exceeds Borders, as he explains,
“This is quite a new project born in 2017. It all started when I made an endorsement video for MG Bass. It was actually a collaboration video with a fellow bassist called Jean Baptiste Basile who lives on the island of Corsica. From that video, we created a film and music from across borders, hence the name of the project, because music does exceed borders. It’s all part of a project to collaborate with musicians and brands from all over the world leading with the bass guitar and bass players and of course, it doesn’t matter what style of music they play. We have players from all over the world, Nabil Durzi from Canada and Josh Godberg and Gray Henry from the USA for example, Daniel Menezes from Brazil, and many others so we can join up our videos literally around the planet. I’m honoured to have them all on board and the door is always open.
It’s not so easy to tour with players who are part of Music Exceeds Borders, as we live apart around the world, like Jean Baptiste in Corsica. We are writing an album together though and are thinking of touring around Europe when it’s been recorded.
Sometimes I travel alone if I’m booked to host a music workshop or bass clinic, but solo or with a band, protection for my bass is essential and a large flight case is not always practical. I’ve been travelling with my Fusion Urban bass gig bag for three years and I am extremely happy with it. It’s light, protective, practical and stylish, I love it. It’s great to be a part of the Fusion brand because they help to ‘sell’ me and I advertise their bag. But most important of all, I am happy to be a part of the Fusion family because it is a true family, with amazing products and extraordinary people.”
Touring is all part of everyday life for a much sought after bassist.
“I’ve played in bands and taught in workshops in a host of countries including Poland, Germany, Denmark and Corsica and I was in Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia not long ago representing Palestine in the Palestinian Cultural Day event with the Fredric Chopin Academy of Music Band of Teachers. I was actually part of a folk and jazz workshop in Jerusalem in 2004, when I first put my hands on a multi-strung 6 string bass, I was also there in a band called Sabreen playing jazz fusion. The legendary American jazz musician Branford Marsalis was also there and I was just knocked out when Branford invited us to jam with him, I still get the shivers when I think about it.
It’s encouraging right now to see so many young students wanting to learn an instrument, I’ve taught in so many countries and workshops, teaching mainly classical guitar. There’s always the problem that students want to jump up the ladder too fast when they’re not ready. It’s frustrating for them, I know, as I was the same. I learn a lot from my students, I often focus on the beginners rather than the advanced students, they might make any mistake unconsciously, but you can take that mistake and maybe turn it into a technique. This happened to me three times….so at this point, I also learn from my students but observing them and see how they play and turn their mistakes into a technique. I also make mistakes while practising and some of these mistakes actually fired back positively at me when I turned them into a new technique. I like teaching classical as it’s in my blood and I still have my roots and can say that Andrés Segovia has always been my main influence, whilst Paco de Lucía I believe to be the best flamenco player. But when it comes to choosing my electric guitar hero, the list is endless. Carlo Santana does reign high on the list though, there’s something about the way he plays that touches my heart.
It’s not about how fast you can play, sure I can play fast, but for me, it’s all about putting my feeling across to the listener. This is what we are trying so hard to do with Mafar band, one of the bands that I play with, which in Arabic means “ escape “ and the new album is called Ta’sheera which means VISA, as in the VISA you need to travel.
The main message in this band and on this new album is to make a difference through our lyrics and our approaches and the songs, like the album cover and the videos are going to be special. The theme is actually a series of messages with each song having its own video clip. The only way to understand the album is to listen to each track in order. It’s a meaningful project that we are working very hard on. It should be released in March 2019. We are deep in rehearsals now and preparing to tour and promote this album throughout the Middle East and Europe as we head towards summer.”
Interview by Lars Mullen
- Music Exceeds Borders: https://www.facebook.com/MusicExceedsBorders/
- Zaid & the Band: https://www.facebook.com/ZaidHilalOfficial/?ref=page_internal
- Mafar: https://www.facebook.com/MafarBand/
- Usama Allati - Nine Strings Bass Funk Rock https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obRua_acpNA
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.