IN THE END, EVERYTHING IS CRYSTAL CLEAR
BY AMY CHIU
"Music, in a word, is life. To be able to sing is like breathing, without it I would not exist."
As Bassam Shuhaibar speaks, he is bent over his Yamaha guitar, his nimble fingers picking out the chords to his latest song, "Crystal Clear." The methodic movements of his wrist and the agile way his fingers pick the strings of the guitar demonstrate the familiarity between his fingers and the strings that has grown over the past five years.
Bassam stops for a moment and holds his hands up in front of him. Examining his long, slim fingers he says with a grin, "I have the hands of a pianist. I should have picked up the piano instead."
The last rays of sunlight shine through the elongated window of Bassam's living room, giving the room a warm and cozy ambiance. The simple décor of the room, a single black leather sofa, a wooden coffee table and entertainment stand, and a solitary standing lamp, reflect on the simplicity and rawness of Bassam's nature.
Now picking at a different tune, Bassam succeeds, after several attempts, in playing the first few chords of Nickleback's new single, "You Remind Me." Looking up from his guitar, he gives his token "Hellz yeah" whoop and puts his guitar aside. As if noticing his surroundings for the first time, Bassam gazes out the window at the breathtaking view of the sun setting behind the Washington Monument in DC. His eyes sparkling with excitement and amazement, he says softly, "Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure this is all real and not some dream. I get goose bumps when I realize that this is really happening, it's all falling into place."
Indeed, the realization of his long-time dream, to cut his first CD, has been a momentous achievement for Bassam, who had to overcome such adversities as culture, fear, lack of technology, and band members spread across continents. Make Mine to Go is a collection of songs written over the span of five years. The simplicity of the music contrasts with the complex, yet heartfelt, lyrics, and together they present his unique story of love, despair, and hope. "Make Mine to Go is a chronology of my life the past few years, explaining the ups and downs that I've been through to realize this dream that I've had in my head for so long. It's saying that no matter how far you strive, perseverance is the key to success, and happiness."
Born and raised in Kuwait, Bassam has been singing for as long as anyone can remember. "Whether he was in the shower or on stage in the school musical, Bassam was in his element when he was singing," explains his sister, Dana Shuhaibar. "He had his wacky, hyper moments but when it came down to music, he was always serious about it. It was obvious he had a talent for singing, but we all teased him about his screeching anyway."
While Bassam learned early on that he could sing, he discovered his poetic abilities later on in life. The first song he ever wrote was co written with his friend Sami Ghawi in the summer of 1992. Bassam laughs out loud as he recalls the event. "We were 13 and it was called 'Diamond in a Ring.' We were comparing someone we knew to a diamond in a ring. It was like 'Holy! We actually wrote that?!' we were shocked because we had done it. Incidentally, no one ever heard it because we never practiced it enough to play, but we were satisfied just with having a song."
Far from being teased, these days Bassam travels with his guitar on his back. "Whenever I hang out with my friends, I always get requests to sing so I carry my guitar with me wherever we go, that way I'm always prepared." At this moment, his cell phone rings, leaving him mid-sentence as he takes the call. Nodding his head and pacing back and forth across the living the room, a couple of "Hellz yeah's" later he hangs up and announces that there is to be a "jam session" tonight, since his friend and fellow collaborator, Amr Bibi, is in town.
Bassam walks over to his entertainment station and puts in Make Mine to Go. The soulful twang of the guitar flows through the speakers and engulfs the room. He sits back on the couch, his eyes closed, listening to his song as though it were the first time. Without opening his eyes, he sings a harmony to the chorus, "I look to see what lies behind, the mysteries locked up inside your eyes. But if there's nothing there for you to hide, let me know, let me know."
With his voice still singing the complexities of love in the background, Bassam starts to get things ready for the jam session, hooking up the microphone and laptop to the speakers. He recalls the recording of "Let Me Know," the first track on his CD. "It took us about six months to get that recorded properly," he says, looking up from the wires in his hands, "my friend Zack, who plays the guitar for this song, was studying abroad in the States and I was still in Kuwait, so we had to wait for vacations to get together and combine the music and lyrics." This seems to be the case with the recording for most of his songs. Due to the scattering of his "jam buddies," it always took a great deal of time to put the songs together. "That's why I finally picked up the guitar. I was tired of waiting around for my friends to be in town to finish my songs." Interrupting his own story, Bassam cracks a few corny jokes into the mic to test the sound. He says, laughing, "You can't help but improvise when you're in front of the mic; it brings out the TV personality in you."
The mic is finally set up to Bassam's liking after fiddling around with it for 20 minutes. "I can't help it," he says with a shrug of his shoulders, "I'm a perfectionist when it comes to my music." Going back to how he learned to play the guitar, "It was during the examination period of my second year of college in 1997. It's always been something I wanted to do but never did because I was too lazy or too scared to try." Bassam stands in the doorway of his bedroom with more wires in his hands, and contemplates what he just said, "Actually, it was more fear than anything else because I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to play and I would be disappointed. But when my friend Simon taught me my first chord, well, that's all it took. I just took it from there and have been playing ever since."
While learning how to play the guitar was a step forward in his musical career, Bassam was still held back from realizing his full musical potential due to his culture and lack of access to a proper studio and commercial support. "Traditionally, music is frowned upon as an occupation because it isn't a stable job. It is seen as more of a hobby, something you do on the side for entertainment," explains Bassam of his Arabic background, "My parents view my music as a hobby, and they support it like they do all my other hobbies. So it was accepted that I could sing, but as long as I had a practical degree to fall back on. That's why I am studying environmental engineering. I couldn't take my music to the next level until I came here, to the States."
"It's not just that," cuts in Amr Bibi, one of Bassam's closest friends, who has walked into the apartment carrying his own guitar and is now helping with the set up. "Kuwait was not a suitable place to cultivate his potential because Bassam's kind of music in not really appreciated. Music in Kuwait is directed more towards the traditional genre of Arabic music."
"Also," continues Bassam, "I didn't have access to a proper studio over there, so I was doing all my recording in my room, using computer programs like CDQ8."
"We were pretty imaginative in the recording," adds Amr, as he and Bassam burst into laughter when they recall the night they recorded Bassam's newest song, "Crystal Clear." "Bassam wanted an echo effect for the song, and after we moved around different locations in his house, we finally settled on his bathroom," recounts Amr, "I was set up on the toilet and Bassam was singing out of the bathtub. As crazy as it sounds, we got the effect we wanted and recorded the song on the first go."
Looking back at how far he has come from that night of bathroom acoustics, it is no wonder Bassam is amazed by what he has achieved so far. "I'm happy having finally recorded this album," he says as he sets up candles around the apartment, "while I'd be satisfied with just having this CD, and playing live for people, I hope for a future with my music. You see though, the same fear I had about playing the guitar is dominating me and dictating whether I send a CD off to a record company or not. I'm a perfectionist, so to my ears, the CD will never be ready… There will always be something wrong with it."
"That's why he needs someone to grab him by the lapels and say 'send it now!'" chides Amr.
By this time the apartment is set up and ready for the "jam session" that is to take place in a few minutes. The coffee table is pushed back against the wall, and there are big pillows scattered over the floor. The lights are turned off and the room is illuminated by the glow of hundreds of tea candles, set up around the room. As their friends begin trickle into the apartment one by one, Bassam and Amr sit side-by-side playing a few alternative tunes by their favorite bands.
Once everyone is settled, Jawad Abuhassan yells out to Bassam, "Play your own songs now, these others have to much wawawa's in them."
"Yeah Bassam," joins in Dima Nuseibeh, "play my song."
"And my song too!" Jawad adds, "I want to fall in love tonight."
Bassam closes his eyes and begins to strum the introduction to one of his most requested songs, "Dawn." The intensity and rawness of emotion with which he sings is almost tangible, and it slices through the stillness of the room.
"The reason people love his music so much," explains Dana, "is that they can all relate to it on a personal level." And it is true. Looking around the room, some are singing along, while others listen quietly, their eyes closed. Each person has a different expression on their face as they relate the lyrics to moments in their own lives.
Every once in a while, Bassam opens his eyes to peek at his audience. The exuberance and enchantment is clearly written all over his face as he watches his friends sing a long. "Playing live, there's nothing like it in this world. It's such a rush to see people singing along to my songs! When I'm done playing and I hear the applause, it's like fire racing through my veins and that's what makes the struggle worthwhile. This is what I live for.
Bassam Shuhaibar (Main subject)
1200 North Veitch Street
Apt # 1210
Arlington, VA 22201
Tel: (703) 522-1122
Interviewed: Nov. 21-25
Dana Shuhaibar (Sister of subject)
P.O. Box 122
Tel: (965) 531- 7668
Interviewed: Nov. 25-26
Amr Bibi (Friend of Subject)
Tel: (965) 973- 4234
Interviewed: Nov. 21-25
Bader Jamalledin (Friend of subject)
Tel: (965) 943-3193
Interviewed: Nov. 30
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