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Make way for the bass: Egyptian bassist Samer George's journey in music

In February this year, Samer George released his second solo album titled 2020

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 10 Mar 2020
George
Samer George
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Introducing Egyptian bassist Samer George is long overdue. An established independent musician, George’s name is celebrated among fellow musicians who recognise his skills, knowledge and musicality. He has collaborated with such Egyptian names as Yehia Khalil, Salah Ragab, Ahmed Rabie, Fathy Salama, Akram Al Sharkawy and Nassir Shamma, among dozens of others, through a three-decade career.

Internationally, he has worked with American saxophonist Don Diageo, singer Christine Gordon, legendary guitar and piano player Stanley Jordan, to name but a few. 

Through the years, many have had occasion to listen to him play as part of the Sweet Sound band led by violinist and former dean of the Cairo Conservatory Mounir Nasr Eldin, or in ensembles accompanying singers such as Ali El Haggar and Sherine Wagdy. He became the main bass player in such well-known bands as Eftekasat, Nagham Masry, The Riff Band and the Cairo Big Bang Society.

Since the 2000s he has also embarked on his own projects, such as Voice and Bass with the Egyptian singer Amy Frega and more recently with Nouran Abutaleb. He has two solo albums in his repertoire, with the last one titled 2020 released last February. 

It would take too much space to cite more than this tiny part of George’s achievement. Suffice to say that he has found his own unique space in a vast network of musical art – so much so that, to musicians and music aficionados, Samer George is among the most sought-after commodities. His creative journey and approach to bass guitar are their own story.

George was in his teens when bass guitar attracted his attention, a curious fact taking into consideration that the usual use of this instrument lies in providing a texture and rhythmic foundation, a role rarely noticed by regular listeners. Only in recent decades did bass started fulfill its melodic potential to become a musical protagonist.

But how did Samer George’s journey start?

“My beginnings with bass guitar definitely came as a result of my interest in it. Its low frequency attracted me, so did its possibilities when brought to fore, as some bassists showed. But  I also had musician friends – a drummer Samih El Naqqash and a guitarist Gasser Abdel-Razek – who thought of forming a band, and there was a place for bass...” 

In the 1980s, when George discovered his connection with bass guitar, few if any opportunities for studying the instrument existed in Egypt, nor was there an internet to provide online resources or any literature on the instrument. 

George
Cover of Samer George's second solo album '2020'

“I was trying to play whatever I could, notes, melodies, chords, while studying music in a deeper sense. I was drawn by the funky sound coming from slap bass,” that is, slapping the string with the right hand against the last fret of the guitar and “popping” it to release a percussive effect, “without knowing how to produce that sound, until I came across a VCR cassette where a musician used this technique. I was also very lucky to find the late Egyptian bass master Hassan Khalil, who laid down the foundations of my musical knowledge.” 

George adds that some musician friends also contributed to his learning process: composer and conductor Hisham Gabr; composer, jazz pianist and Eftekasat founder Amro Salah; American bass player and producer Tony Johns, with whom he interacted during his stay in Bahrain in the 1990s, as well as the time he spent with Don Diageo and singer Christine Gordon. 

“I can’t enumerate everyone who contributed to my development, as there were many friends and fellow musicians, each adding something important on the road. At the same time I was always trying to find any book, any article that even mentioned bass guitar.” 

The more he learned, the more he began to realise just how oceanic music was, and the more passionate he felt about it. Indeed, in the years while Samer George explored those vast waters, swiftly climbing the musical ladder, I was personally struck by his constant humility and eagerness to learn, while always projecting the same fresh and youthful curiosity that he had one or two decades before.

By the early 2000s George’s name was associated with the Egyptian world jazz band Eftekasat (established in 2001 by Amro Salah). In 2006, Eftekasat released their debut, Mouled Sidi El-Latini (The Latin Dervish), a fully instrumental 11-track album in which jazz meets oriental music. The album was supported by Al Mawred Al Thakafy’s grant and produced by Darryl John Kennedy, who is also producer of the Wust El-Balad’s debut, named Wust El-Balad (2007) and George’s two albums. 

“Darryl who for years would spend months in Egypt, is a skillful multi-instrumentalist, a brilliant sound engineer and one of the most influential musicians I have ever met,” George comments, his voice taking on a warm tone as he recalls his years with Eftekasat. “We were very close to each other and the first album in particular involved strong contributions from each and every band member. It was a very interesting era. We performed extensively, taking our music to Europe and the United States.” 

Eftekasat’s second album Dandasha (2010) came as no surprise and was offered a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. The third and last album, Gar Shakal (2015) received support from the American University in Cairo where George was already teaching (and where he leads the Groove Ensemble today). 

It was during Efteskasat’s live performance heyday that George’s boundless musical curiosity led him to take his guitar beyond its original task, as he began adding a new language to the usual bass functions. He explored new techniques including the touch or tapping technique, in which the bassist taps his fingers on the fretboard with both hands to create different notes, melodies, even chords on the guitar, all at the same time. 

Samer George
Samer George performing at the Bansko Jazz Festival, Bulgaria (Photo: courtesy of Samer George)

To make this clearer, bass guitar is normally played with the left hand pressing the string behind a chosen fret while the right hand plucks or strums, both hands playing the same note at any given time. With tapping (or two-handed tapping) technique, the bassist can produce several musical lines using both hands: the left hand  taps (or hammers), creating one note, while the right hand is free to create another. This opens up a whole new universe of possibilities, melodies, chords and arpeggios, all interwoven. Though in use since the 1980s by some bassists around the globe, few musicians in Egypt have played bass this way. In fact, it is Stanley Jordan – with whom George performed years later in 2009 – who is credited with popularising tapping techniques. 

“I remember when I listened to Jordan’s debut album Magic Touch (1985) and I could hear several lines played together. At first I thought they were recorded separately, only later did I discover he was playing them simultaneously. It immediately hit me how he took the technique out of the music’s way, allowing the listener to deeply enjoy the piece rather than ponder over his technical acrobatics.” 

As attractive and musically challenging such out-of-the-box explorations are, traditionalists frown at them. There is always a generation of musicians who believe that the basic function of an instrument should not be altered. George represents the experimental side of that coin, which is integral to the evolution of creativity and humanity itself; this is where jazz in particular comes in. 

“We live at a time when instruments can and should be given new roles. Any change, any new experiment is healthy; it reflects life, which always seeks to create new things. I do not mind reproducing what is old and tested, yet introducing fresh ideas helps us evolve, grow, develop in music and in general. Recycling the same old things, the same old techniques makes us stagnate.”

Slowly but surely, the technique gained more ground especially on the international jazz scene, though it can only be practised by those musicians who are able to grasp the musical complexity (from melodies to a whole language of harmonies) that comes along with it. Few master it to the point of it becoming second nature, so that they can play effortlessly enough to give the performance some personal colour. In this context, it is safe to say that Samer George is among a handful of Egyptian musicians who managed to adopt such techniques. His starting point was the need to turn his instrument from the provider of a low-frequency lining, to the protagonist of the music. 

This is particularly clear in the two albums George has released (and which he calls his solo projects): All You Need Is Bass (2016); and the newly released 2020, which appeared in February. Both are filled with interesting arrangements of well known jazz, rock and pop classics as well as a few original compositions. Both are produced by Darryl John Kennedy, who has also contributed to several tracks. 

Samer George
Samer George performing with The Riff Band (Photo: courtesy of Samer George)

2020 is a selection of moods and explorations in which George’s guitar journeys through jazz, blues, light pop and rock, taking us past decades of musical influence. One track titled St. Thomas showcases George’s bass guitar techniques as the instrument shifts from its own monologue to a dialogue with Kennedy’s brass. We can hear that in many tracks the expressive brass section is juxtaposed with George’s much less imposing instrument without undermining the latter’s leading role. It is in the track titled Bluesette that the brass and synthetic sounds dare to take the lead in some segments. 

However, Ana La Habibi stresses the bass guitar against the calm atmospheric background before bass with electric guitar effect introduce a stronger edge taking the composition into the spheres of progressive rock and hinting at a line of thinking similar to that found in some of the compositions played by Eftekasat. In its turn, A Child Is Born, composed by Thad Jones, with orchestration by Darryl John Kennedy who also performs on EWI (electronic wind instrument) in this track, features the six-string fretless bass guitar. The same guitar returns with a captivating solo in Goodnight To All, composed by Kennedy. 

The two albums were George’s platforms for presenting his language, an opportunity that doesn’t often come along when he is playing with bands. However, he has a lot of creative freedom and the ability to move beyond the usual bass functions in his other projects, whether Voice and Bass (which is on hold due to the Egyptian singer Amy Frega’s studies in Germany) or the current project with Nouran Abutaleb. 

“Projects which rely on duets – whether it’s Amy, Nouran or when I play with Doaa El Sebaii or Nathalie Bichara – give me more space to explore the possibilities of bass. But I also used a variety of out-of-the-box techniques in my work with Nagham Masry,” he points. 

In under a year, George’s collaboration with Abutaleb has found its place among the highlights of the music scene. Together with bass guitar, Nouran’s pure voice and the tunes’ oriental scent create a unique blend. “I like the marriage of bass and voice, especially the female voice. The bass guitar has this very low range which is beautifully complemented by the female voice’s high pitch. It’s like we have two ends of a piano which when played together express a wide range of sounds.”

George’s musical preferences are definitely not the first choice for the majority of Egyptian listeners and as such his audience is more intimate within the country, and much bigger during  festivals and internationally. 

“I do what I believe in; I do what I like. I know that if I tried to do things differently, I might  gain a wider circle of listeners. I do collaborate with renowned and popular musicians, yet at the same time I give a lot of focus to my projects, such as the one with Nouran.” 

George nonetheless points to the fact that some of the covers the duo released reached an unexpectedly high viewership. An example is Ya Ghali, a cover of a song in which Abutaleb’s crystal-clear oriental voice is fused with George’s bass techniques: the video shot in Room Art Space went over 6.5 million views on YouTube within three months of its release (and that is not counting other platforms). The music arrangement did not include any adornments or percussion lines, and its success is rooted in its musicality, artistic honesty and intelligent creative dialogues. George reveals that the duo is currently preparing to travel to the Carthage Jazz Festival in April, this time with the whole band. 

At the same time George is still contemplating what his next step after 2020 should be. Future collaborations with renowned artists – whether Egyptian or international – are on the horizon, but he won’t give details at this point. Whether at Carthage or Egypt’s upcoming Jazz Tales Festival, there should be plenty of opportunity to listen to him live.

“I will not stop making solo albums yet I’m still thinking about the new approach; it is still not clear to me right now. What I know for sure is that for the rest of this year, I will be focusing on writing songs with Nouran; I strongly believe in the potential of this project. Nouran has a great talent; I see that she is a good addition to the music scene. Of course I will not stop working on other projects like those with Doaa El Sebaii and Nathalie Bichara.” 

Samer George
Nouran Abutaleb and Samer George project (Photo: courtesy of Samer George)

*A version of this article appears in print in the  12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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