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Osama Afifi by Brent-Anthony Johnson : Keep an Eye On

It takes a lot of skill, chops, and a titanium spine to succeed in both the LA and Seattle music scenes! For the past nearly 20 years a player has brought his formidable bass playing and arranging to artists seeking “that certain something” to their music. That player is Osama Afifi! Like many well-paid, and oft-played musicians toiling (and thriving) in studios up-and-down the West Coast, Osama is not a household name. However, his tasteful and balanced ability as a doubler guarantees his telephone isn’t idle for very long.

Osama decided to leave the gritty LA scene and settle in Seattle, WA in order to spend more time with his growing family, and has since then become an invaluable entity to the likes of Jeff Kashiwa, Nick Deonigi, David Keys, Tribal Jazz, Hook Me Up, Kareem Kandi, Darren Motamedy, Gail Pettis. The 5th avenue Theater and Jazz Impressions– all the while maintaining a full student roster. Yeah, he’s slowing down a little… See for yourself at: www.myspace.com/osamaafifi

BAJ: Osama! Thanks so much for taking time to speak with Bass Musician Magazine, man! Thanks also for the cool compilation disc you sent to me! Man, you cover a lot of ground… Give our readers a thumbnail sketch of how you approach standard material such as “Confirmation” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, and how you work toward keeping that material fresh?

Osama: The first thing I can say is play, play, play…! The more we play the more ideas start to flow. I also like taking tunes and helping to arrange them in different ways. With the B Sharp Jazz Quartet we took the tune “Confirmation” and put a D pedal half time Hip Hop groove to it. With Jazz Impressions we took “Some Day My Prince (Will Come)” and put a 6/8 Afro Cuban groove at the A section and walked 4/4 at the B section. For solos I walked double time 3/4. I think little things like that bring different flavors to old standards.

BAJ: Let’s talk about “TONE”! How would you describe your tone, and how close are your recorded examples to the sound in your head? Also, tell us about your acoustic contrabass, and how your mic’ing it these days? Oh yeah… and your electric bass guitar tone, too – along with your gear choices and “why”!

Osama: I would describe my tone as “round and fat”. I sometimes try to go for a midrange “in your face” tone… But I always go back to a James Jamerson inspired tone. Weather on the upright or electric it’s all the same to me. I started on upright, so I think the acoustic vibe seeps into my electric playing. The electric bass players who most inspired me started on upright bass: James Jamerson, Verdeen White, Nathan East and Stanley Clarke. My upright bass is a 5-string with a low B-string with Wilson pickups installed. I’ve never had much luck mic’ing the upright live. My main electric bass is a Fodera Imperial 5. It’s the best all-round bass I have ever owned. I also think the amp is important for the proper live tone. I am currently using Mark Bass amplification. I prefer fresh D’Addario nickel round-wound strings for the electric, and D’Addario hybrid strings for the upright.

BAJ: You spend a lot of time either teaching, or on the bandstand. What are those technical and musical practices that keep the blades sharp? Also, what are a few tips you can share on the subject of “focus”?

Osama: I constantly work on scales and sight-reading. I also practice a lot to play-along material. Hal Leonard has an excellent collection of jazz play-alongs. I also spend time transcribing basslines and solos. That is a great form of ear training. I also work on learning new tunes and melodies. A good idea is to learn tunes in different keys. I really get annoyed with myself if a bandleader calls a tune I think I know in an unfamiliar key and I hack through it. Moments like that push me back to the drawing board.

As a bass player, knowing a lot of tunes leads to more gigs. I pride myself in knowing quite a few tunes! But I know some cats who know virtually thousands of tunes. Focus is an interesting term… When I shed I sometimes have it, and sometimes I don’t!! When I practice I try focusing on one task at a time. Being consistent is a very important part of being a good bass player. When I am performing, my focus is on the bandstand. There is nothing worse than grooving along and hitting a huge sour note! (Laughter)

BAJ: In an attempt to site a couple of your many A-List performance engagements… tell us about playing with Hamish Stuart (AWB, Paul McCartney), and also with the Doors – on VH-1’s “Storytellers” series?

Osama: I actually played with Hamish at a club in Los Angeles called R&B LIVE. I was the house bassist there from time-to-time. Billy Preston, Stacy Lattisaw, Mickey Howard and Hamish Stuart were among those who I backed up and performed with. Hamish Stuart was one of the funkiest guitar players I’ve ever grooved with. We actually played “Pick up the Pieces”. The other guitarist I played with that same evening was David Williams. He played guitar for Michael Jackson and Madonna. I had been performing for a while with John Densmore’s Tribal Jazz. John called to ask me to perform a song “The End” with the Doors on VH-1’s Storytellers. Of course I said yes!! Being on stage with Rock legends is something I’ll always remember.

BAJ: Along that line… What are a few of the highlights from your recorded discography? Also, what are a few tools you find invaluable to your session kit?

Osama: Recording two CD’s with The B Sharp Jazz Quartet was really special. It was one of those situations where we actually rehearsed and grew together. With that band I toured all over the USA and Europe. Another highlight was doing a couple of sessions with the incredible drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. All the stories you have heard about him are true. We were all in the studio rehearsing and looking over our parts but Vinnie wasn’t around. The producer was saying, “where’s Vinnie”? He was outside making a call. He finally came in and took a peek at the music. We asked if he wanted to rehearse the tune and he said roll tape (we still had tape back then). He, then, nailed it! Cats like that make everyone on the session feel like a million bucks! Their time, feel, and groove are so strong you can’t help but pick up your game and play to your fullest potential! Other basses I bring to various sessions are my 6-string Tune fretless and my Warwick Streamer II 5 with a Roland V bass pickup. Another bass I have recently added to my collection is the Azola Lightning Bug electric upright bass. This is the best electric upright I have ever played. It is also great for the road.

BAJ: What would you say to a bassist who has the dream of becoming a session bassist and sideman?

Osama: The first thing I would say is learning to sight-read music. That means both single note reading and chord chart reading. When I was much younger I started getting gigs over players much better, and experienced than myself, because I could sight-read.

One of my early professional musical experiences was with a group called the David Ii Orchestra. Ricky Miner was the previous bassist. My reading skill got me in and kept me in that band. Don’t put it off! Whatever style of music you are into it is a good idea to learn the history of that music. That means learning a lot of songs. Always remember the role of a bass player… And understand that role has expanded over the years! It can be easy to get sidetracked with all sorts of different hot lick techniques. Just watch YouTube for five minutes!! Well, hot licks can also be real fun.

We also need to learn how to network!! On a 1990’s tour with Vanessa Paradis (Johnny Dep’s wife), I performed with an old drummer friend of mine named Zoro. He gave me a lot of extra tips about networking. As far as business cards… don’t be stingy, pass them out! I was networking, e-mailing cats and introducing myself… letting them know I was making a move from L.A. to Seattle 6 months before the move. When I made the move 3 1/2 years ago I was determined not to sit idle. The first night I arrived after the 21-hour drive I went directly to a jam session at a club called Jazz Bones. I sat in and met some local players. That night I met a guitar player named Mason Hargrove whom I play with today. Get out and play as much as possible. Don’t wait for the phone to ring. Call players and set up playing situations! Use MySpace to meet other players and producers. I just landed a musical theater gig in Seattle’s 5th Ave theater called The Memphis. I got the gig indirectly through MySpace. I also recorded a song and video for the Obama campaign called, “FIRED UP, READY TO GO” featuring Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron. That video also happened from MySpace.

In the early 1990’s I toured with Yanni. I got that gig indirectly from an L.A. paper called The Recycler. I saw an add looking for a bass player. The gig was paying $35.00. The connections through that gig later landed me the audition with Yanni. I ended up doing a 58 city U.S. and Canadian tour with Yanni and it paid a whole lot more than $35.00!!!

BAJ: What would you like to accomplish in the New Year?

Osama: I would like to meet more and more musicians to perform with. I am drawn to many styles of music and would like to dive into some unfamiliar territory. I also like to keep progressing as an upright and electric bassist and would like take some private instruction from one of the Seattle Symphony bassists. A few years ago I took lessons with Gary Willis and Jeff Berlin. I learned so much from those cats. I will also make it a point to start recording a solo CD. I am not sure what direction I will take… but I look forward to the project.

BAJ: Do you often get the opportunity to perform live with singer-songwriter Nick Deonigi? Your work with him is a cool departure from the “jazz guy” thing with the B#’s and Tribal Jazz! Please give our readers your thoughts on switching gears from straight-ahead to pop folk, and how you view your role in the different contexts.

Osama: My earliest musical memories is strumming the broom and singing along with the Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There”. “Meet The Beatles” was my first album! I grew up listening to everything from the Carpenters and the Monkees to Sly and the Family Stone and the Jackson Five. My grandfather had all the 78’s of big band music, and I loved that stuff! That was before I really knew what jazz was. As a child I used to watch Lawrence Welk on TV. In my early teens I was into The Who and then got deep into Motown and everything R&B. I really got into jazz when I was about 14 years old. So when I work with an artist like Nick I just do what I do. All my listening and playing experience is put into whatever I am doing at that moment in time. I have done a couple of live shows with Nick and look forward to many more.

BAJ: Okay. Curveball, man… what is “funk”? How do you get it? Is it get-able? (Laughter)

Osama: Funk is James Jamerson, Larry Graham, James Brown, Bootsy Collins, Verdine White, Rocco Prestia, Herbie Hancock, Cameo, George Clinton, Sly and the Family Stone, The Isley Brothers, The Ohio Player, The Average White Band, Stevie Wonder, The Meters, Marcus Miller, Funkadelic, J Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, Flea, Tom Browne, Rick James, The Temptations, Prince, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Louis Johnson, Benard Edwards, The Commodores, and Kool & the Gang… plus many more. I can’t really explain it but I know it when I hear it!! It’s like any other style. You have to listen to these cats and catch the groove. Find a funky drummer, then practice, practice, practice…

BAJ: Please give our readers the required reading list for learning how to play jazz. Thanks!

Osama: I don’t believe you can learn jazz from books alone. But books can help with the process. First of all I would say listen and transcribe bass lines and solos and make your own book of jazz. The Charlie Parker Omni book is real fun to work out of. The Jazz Bass Book by John Goldsby is a beautiful book. It is part history and part hands on. Rufus Reed The Evolving Bassist is a great book. Bassist Michael Moore also has a book called Melodic Playing in the Thumb Position. Past generations of players did not have all this info that we have today.

BAJ: Describe your “average” day, man. Also, describe how you balance our active schedule.

Osama: For working full time musicians there is no “average day”. By the end of this year I will have done about 210 gigs. That includes Jazz club, wedding, corporate, concert, recording and a one-month tour with Tribal Jazz earlier this year. I also have 22 private students. My average day is waking up at 7:00 AM and getting my 6-year-old son Jordan to school. After that it depends on what is going on that week. I keep my palm pilot with me at all times and update it regularly. I am a late night guy. After gigs I usually go to my studio and practice a bit. That is my way of winding down.

BAJ: Man, thanks again for hanging with us for second! I’m glad we could have a little time together! Any closing thoughts for our wonderful readers?

Osama: I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to play music all these years. Do it for yourself, and never let anyone tell you not to play! I hope in the near future many more kids in our country and the world can experience the joy of making music through school programs.

And again, catch him online at www.myspace.com/osamaafifi

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