Syrian Bass

August 14th, 2017

The bass guitar had been leaning on its stand for months. I used to play guitar with our youngest son, Stefan, but he got busy with work and his girlfriend. Our jam sessions ended. It’s no fun playing bass by yourself. It’s remarkably boring. Bass lines are essential, but they tend to be rather repetitive.

On Monday afternoons I visit some Syrian refugees, and I teach the kids English for an hour. Generally, I have six children huddled around me. I don’t want to bore them, so I try to find ways to keep them interested. The children are usually motivated to read and write, and I want to keep it that way.

I looked at the bass, and decided that I would bring that along with me when I visited the refugees. I thought about taking the amplifier with me too, but that felt like pushing my luck.  I dusted off the guitar, and I struggled to remember a few simple tunes. I didn’t need many. Three or four riffs would be sufficient.

On Monday I rang the doorbell at the Syrians’ house. One of the kids opened the door for me and said, “Hi.” Her eyes got wide when she saw the guitar.

I walked into the living room. Um Hussein was there in her hijab and dark robe. She gave me a funny look when she saw the bass.

I told the kids, “Let’s go upstairs and play some music.” They all followed me up the narrow, winding staircase to the second floor of the house.

I sat down in a chair. The children were all around me.  I started to play, and they all got quiet. I plucked the strings and fumbled through a rendition of “Sunshine of Your Love” from Cream. I had their attention, so I tried another song. It was something older than the first piece.

I asked them, “Did you like that one?”

They nodded.

“Do you know what that song is called?”

They all shook their heads.

“That song is called ‘Stand By Me’. Do you know what that means?”

More head shaking.

I stood up and I turned to Amar. I said, “Amar, come here, right next to me.”

He did.

“If I am close to you like this, what am I doing?’

He thought for a moment and replied, “Stand by me!”

“Right. ‘Stand by me’ means that somebody is near you. That person is with you when you are in trouble or you need help.”

Amar thought a bit, and then his eyes lit up. “Yeah. Right.”

I called out, “Okay, somebody write this on the board: The song is called ‘Stand by Me’!”

Nisrin grabbed a marker and started to write that out.

“Okay, now somebody tell me about this guitar!”

Nizar said, “It is orange and brown.”

“Is it really?”


“Okay, then you write that on the board.”

After he finished writing, Yasmin said, “I want to play!”

“Okay, sit down, let’s do it.”

It seemed like they all wanted to play at the same time. I convinced them to take turns. The guitar was really too big for them. Most of the kids had to hold the bass in their laps. Some of them could barely reach across the guitar neck.

I tried to explain the names of the strings.

“The bass strings are E, A, D, and C.”

Ibrahim said, “Yes! A, B, C, D!”

“Uh, no, not really. They go from top to bottom: E, A, D, C.”

Ibrahim looked at me confused. “Not A, B, C, D?”

“No, well, never mind. That’s not so important. Ibrahim, pluck the E string. Pull here.”

He pulled it and the string gave a deep, mellow note.

“I asked him. “Was that a high note or a low note?”


“Yes! Right! Now pull on the C string. What kind of sound is that? High or low?”


“Right! Good job!”

We talked about the different parts of the guitar. We talked about whether it was quiet or loud. It could be both. We tried out new words in English.

I showed them how to play a twelve bar. I explained that it was the blues. Blues music.

Nizar shouted, “No! Rock music! I like rock music!”

That boy is well on his way to becoming an American.

Nada brought me up some hot tea.

“Nada, do you want to try?’

Nada was shy. She shrugged and shook her head. “No. I don’t want to.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to play.”

All the other children tried to play the guitar and/or write something about it. I finished up by playing the bass line from “Hey Joe”.

You can’t go wrong with some Jimi Hendrix.











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