Regular readers of this column have probably noticed that I frequently write about the role musicians play in the worldwide struggle for freedom and social justice. There's perhaps no greater struggle in the world today than the brutal conflict currently unfolding in Syria.
Inspired by the Arab Spring movement, Syrian protesters took to the streets in March of 2011 to call for the removal of president Bashar al-Assad. Assad's ruthless, violent crackdown on these non-violent demonstrations quickly escalated into a full-scale civil war. In just two years the war has claimed the lives of over 70,000 Syrians - - half of which are said to be civilians - - and created hundreds of thousands of refugees, who've fled Syria in search of safety in neighboring countries.
Bassel Al-Madani is a Midwest native who is using his music to spread awareness about the devastating tragedy in Syria. Al-Madani, frontman for Bassel and the Supernaturals will be performing two solo shows in Indiana this week.
"I grew up in Ohio. I moved to Chicago about three years ago," says Bassel Al-Madani. Listening to Al-Madani's vintage style Windy City soul-inspired songs, you wouldn't necessarily associate the singer with the Middle East, but his family heritage has kept him closely connected to the Syrian crisis.
"I'm first generation Syrian-American. Both of my parents were born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, which is where a lot of the craziness has been happening during the civil war," says Al-Madani.
While growing up in the Midwest, Al-Madani would make frequent trips to Syria to visit his extended family, "I would go there every other year or so. It's been about five years since I've visited. It's gotten bad over there and now it's extremely dangerous to travel."
"It's directly affecting my family in the Middle East," says Al-Madani wearily. "There are women and children in the streets begging for food and money. There are times when they don't have power. It's just a devastating situation."
But he hasn't let his despair turn into hopelessness.
"It's inspired me not only to try and assist in their situation, but to try to spread awareness here."
"We hear a lot on the news about the crisis, but we don't hear what we can do to help out," says Al-Madani.
And what is he doing to help out?
"We donated the pre-sales of our album to humanitarian efforts in Syria." He's also arranged a series of fundraising concerts with his backing band the Supernaturals, a jazzy, soulful nine-piece ensemble replete with full horn section.
I asked Al-Madani what drew him into the retro soul sound.
"Growing up in Ohio I was doing more indie folk stuff. When I moved to Chicago, I was introduced to the soul, funk and jazz influences. The whole '60s and '70s sound really stuck to me."
That simple freedom of creative expression, which many of us take for granted here, is a luxury that Al-Madani's extended Syrian family doesn't have.
"I haven't been recently enough to directly experience the cultural adjustments to what's going on. But people barely have the resources to get through to the next day, let alone having the ability to focus on their musicianship or artistry. At this point I think a lot of people are just scared to express themselves. When you speak out against what's going on, you're putting yourself on the line."
If you would like to make a donation to support humanitarian aid in Syria, Al-Madani recommends The International Committee of the Red Cross or Avaaz.
"Avaaz is doing amazing work inside Syria. They're getting inside to some of the areas where the need is most crucial."
Or you can make a contribution in person: Al-Madani will be performing this week at Rachel's Cafe in Bloomington on Thursday, March 7 and Lazy Daze Coffee House in Indianapolis on Friday, March 8