Interview: Mozart can be Syrian
with Kinan Azmeh
by Azmi Haroun
Calling Damascus and NYC home, Kinan Azmeh is a renowned Syrian clarinetist and composer who focuses on abstract performances and collaborations. Before the age of Twitter, his father wrote to Encyclopedia Britannica for advice on how Kinan, too ambidextrous for the violin, could focus his musical craft elsewhere. They wrote back: try the clarinet.
Kinan’s musical pedigree has seen him become the clarinetist in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a global collective of musicians who scored a 2017 Grammy. His discography includes three albums with his ensemble Hewar, soundtracks for film and dance, and an album with his New York Arabic/Jazz quartet, the Kinan Azmeh CityBand. He is also the artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Players, a pan-Arab ensemble dedicated to contemporary music from the Arab world. Having played some of the most prestigious symphony halls worldwide, Kinan’s charisma lies in his innate ability to reimagine musical boundaries and help us “experience emotions that we do not have the luxury of experiencing in real life”.
At 3:00 pm in Prospect Heights, he delved into his poetic and optimistic project, Songs for Days to Come, Vol 2 in an honest discussion about how identity, resilience, and collaboration shape his artistry.
Azmi Haroun: Hello Mr. Azmeh. Thank you so much taking the time to do this. Could you start with some fundamentals?
Kinan Azmeh: I was born in Damascus in 1976 and raised there for most of my life. I went to a standard high school, and did music school with classes twice a week. When I finished high school, I double majored in music and electrical engineering. Then I came to the U.S. to do my Masters at Julliard in New York, and my doctorate at the City University of New York. And the city sucked me in man, like it does to a lot of people.
I was going back and forth between home and here; I never wanted to become an expatriate. I tried to stay in touch as much as I could with both communities: the new one here in New York and the one where I belong—not only Damascus, but Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Unfortunately, travelling to Syria stopped in 2012.
In your interview with Yo-Yo Ma, you said that you moved to New York weeks before 9/11 and that your perception of the city changed drastically afterwards. You said you were “never scared, but always aware” as an Arab immigrant. Has that mentality changed?
When 9/11 happened, I didn’t know how to react to it. I was facing the pressures of moving to a new city and starting a rigorous program at Julliard. Then, immediately, Arab immigrants were all told to register with the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. You don't realize the severity of what you are asked to do, but I knew that it would change my life every time I fly within or to the U.S. However, I'm somebody who always likes to look on the bright side. I'm able to make a living out of playing my music, so I'm not complaining.
That’s the only New York I know though: getting taken aside at the airport because you speak Arabic and have a Syrian passport. That’s been my life for 16 years. Every time I go check in, it’s followed by additional screening. Then you sit in this waiting room where you meet friends from Sudan to North Korea.
The only thing that is consistent is how angry I get at being profiled. It's not only about me, it's about everybody. If you scan the skin colors of people pulled aside, it's a joke. The screening isn’t random. For me, it's 100 percent of the time.
"Additional screening" is an example of how this profiling continues under different names.
I understand how things become like this when countries react with fear. Is dividing and profiling the right reaction? No, but it's tested throughout time. I can only see things from my angle, and I believe that you cannot make a blanket statement on people from a political, ethnic, or religious standpoint. That's a fight that we all are fighting, but how do you deal with this?
Once, I wrote a piece waiting in that room. I thought it could be a protest song, uniting people who didn't share the same language in the room. I was imagining this as a movie, sitting in this room waiting to be questioned and people start humming a little unification song. I tried to be creative in reaction to this instead of, “Fuck that, fuck this.”
I am reminded about one of your many projects, Hewar (meaning dialogue in Arabic), in the situations you described. What kind of dialogue were you and bandmates envisioning?
Dialogue as the norm, not the exception. As a musician and an individual, you cannot exist on your own, it's not a rewarding life. Some of the best ideas come from juxtaposing your ideas against somebody else's, so I'm always happy to share ideas and listen. Hearing what others say will inform how you can phrase your own thoughts.
I don't want to be too philosophically negative, and people always blame social media—which I won’t do. Everybody is about projecting what they have to say, but nobody reads what other people say. If you look at the number of books being printed and read in the Arab world today, it's ridiculous. There's less and less room for dialogue, since people feel, if they publish things, they have importance.
In Songs for Days to Come many collaborators are friends of yours, experiencing forms of exile. Can wars and other inhumane situations be breeding grounds for artistic creation? Do you think that creativity can at least serve as a coping mechanism?
Great question. Yesterday, I was at the premiere of my project Songs for Days to Come, a project in collaboration with American pianist Lenore Davis and two childhood friends, Dima Orsho and Kinan Abou-Afach. The music is paired with lyrics from eleven wonderful contemporary Syrian poets.
I didn't do this project in reaction to what's happening at home. I set these poems to music because I think they're great poems, not because they're Syrian poets or because Syria is in focus or I'm Syrian. The sudden courage in the writing paired perfectly with the music. Of course, the context changes, and part of your role as an artist is to document. Part of what you do is to try to create the emotions that you don't have the luxury of experiencing in real life.
Having said that, what Syria, Syria being the collective of Syrians, has produced is incredible, even in the darkest of times. People are finding alternative ways to spread these words to the world. And the unfortunate tragedy of people leaving their homes helped spread these words. Do I think I would have written differently if the revolution and the war didn’t happen? I don't know. I can only think of what happened now and my reaction to it. But I would like to think of art as a proactive force—you're pushing the boundaries versus just responding to how the boundaries change.
I enjoyed your collaboration with Kevork Mourad, “Home Within.” In an interview with CBS, you were explaining how we are forced to realign our senses of home. Home isn't necessarily limited to a physical place. Is this something you actively feel as you compose music?
With Syria, I wondered: What can I really do? I had moments where I thought to myself: “This piece of wood that I'm holding, I'm obsessing about, practicing… What does it do?” In reality, it doesn't feed the hungry or stop a bullet. It doesn't free a political prisoner or bring a democratic, secular Syria… I had to stop writing for about a year. I wrote some sketches, but I wasn't able to think productively.
I kept playing because that's what I do for a living, but then I realized that I owe it to myself to hold on to my tools of expression. For me, that's very important. If the whole uprising started with people wanting to express an opinion, then I should hold on to my tools. Mine may be more abstract, but I started to write again because I felt the need to express my feelings. “Home Within” was about me documenting my and Kervork's feelings at different times from 2011 to today and in reaction to specific events.
We left the title open-ended, engaging with questions like: What does home mean? Where is home? Are we imagining ourselves being at home? Or does “Home Within” mean your home is inside of you? We wanted people to relate to the idea of home in a more universal way while pointing out that, even if it's not in the news now, the war and its consequential atrocities are still happening every single day.
At the same time, we try to clarify that this is not the summary of Syrian stories. If you really want to hear the Syrian story, you have to hear 24 million stories.
It is difficult for many to understand that stories from Syria are all different yet interconnected.
That's right. Syrian artists are spread around the world and there are great stories and art that is not bound or limited to telling ‘contemporary Syrian stories’. In the long run, this changes the narrative. But ultimately, artists should be doing their art and I don't think artists should be concerned with changing how the Syrians are looked at. They should be very honest and authentic—in the most democratic sense of the word. That doesn't mean you have to wear traditional Syrian clothes to be a genuine Syrian artist.
Through tragedy, you've been inspired by themes of love and resilience. It might seem painfully obvious, but Syrians experiencing significant tragedy still fall in love. Is this a source of joy for you? Does it influence your music?
I'm always impressed by people who fall in love. I think it's such a noble act, which sounds silly. I wrote a piece titled “Wedding,” inspired by the mood at a countryside Syrian wedding: How everyone is invited, how, even if you dislike your neighbor, you have to invite them… People just show up, and the musicians dictate the landscape of the occasion.
I think about how nobody is able to stop people falling in love throughout the war. Love is one of the very few human rights that no authority can take away from you. Now, when I see artwork about noble human sentiments, I find it to be incredibly powerful because it's universal.
On that note, are any of your songs a reflection of sadness?
I don't think so. Once, my mom asked me something similar, “Why is all of your music sad?” I reflected on it, because I lived a very happy childhood. Maybe I had not experienced sadness, and maybe I have an intellectual or primal need to feel that. In fact, I think the reason I stopped writing music when the uprising began because there were emotions I had never experienced before, and the need for music disappeared.
In Songs for Days to Come, it is about how better things are yet to come. I’m an optimist by nature, and I have the luxury to be, but I've been proven wrong many times. It's hard to tell somebody who’s lost everything, "You have to be optimistic," but those of us who can afford to be optimistic have to stay optimistic. It can be contagious.
The poetry in the project was written between 2012-2017 (with the exception of two poems written in 2004 and 1998). They explore topics that, as Syrians, we started to debate recently because so many taboos were broken in the last six years. You're talking about authority, religion, and so many other conversations that were silenced. That’s why these are songs for days to come, because the discourse is new and I'd like for it to last a long time.
As a Syrian artist, do you feel politicized?
It’s unhealthy to be preoccupied with how people perceive you as an artist and as a human being. The only thing you can do is to be honest, genuine, and true to yourself and the art you're making. Different labels will come at you, but that should not change who you are.
I systematically reject invitations sent to me just for being Syrian. It's an immediate no. Sometimes it's ridiculous. An event organizer writes you an email saying "You're a Syrian artist. We'd like to invite you to this festival. What do you do?" You become an ambassador even though you cannot be representative of everybody. But you can function as a window to a scene. That's why I always suggest friends of mine for festivals because it's nice when people see that I am part of a large community. I don't want to be the Syrian musician; I want to be one of many Syrian musicians.
I don’t mind it if people ask me genuine questions about Syria. It's better than being indifferent. We cannot be insensitive when somebody makes an effort. If somebody says, “My house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina,” you say something, but you realize how limited you are in what you can say.
If someone asks me about what happened and they really want to know, I refer them to real documented history, whether online or print. If not, I just tell them my version of the story. Most of the time people hear me play, not talk, so I have easy access to people listening to what I have to say.
Also, there's so much misinformation about Syria. The plight of Syrians has been reduced into reactionary and often incomplete media narratives about migration, war, and terrorism.
That’s right. I mean it’s tragic, because, until now, people still don't know what's happening even though the story is quite clear. I always immediately refer people to places where they can help. There are so many organizations out there doing a fabulous job on the ground: UNHCR, MSF, Karam Foundation—the list goes on. If people want to help, they can donate, volunteer, or go to the camps. But you can start by just learning about what's going on.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your involvement with International Rescue Committee?
My trips are about doing something meaningful in a very short time. Going to play with the refugees, or for them—sometimes just hearing them is incredibly inspiring.
Lenore Davis commissioned Songs for Days to Come and we decided that part of the proceeds of the album sales would go to the IRC. We visited a Jersey school program for the IRC and did six sessions, which I try to do it as often as possible.
One of my most inspiring trips was to the Za'atari camp. I also visited ‘urban refugees centers’, which house refugees who are not registered with UNHCR. I brought some musical instruments, and I was teaching a group of eight girls between the ages of 8 and 12. We finished the lesson early with 10 minutes to spare, so I said, “Ok, let's write songs. What kind of songs do you like to sing?” They stayed quiet at first. “Shall we write about home? About freedom?” Then one of the girls whispered, “Estaz [Teacher] Kinan, we’re done with these topics.” They wanted to write love songs. One of them shared that they wanted to write a song about a boy that one of the girls liked. That’s resilience.
Previously working at IRC, I was always impressed by clients’ resolve. I would tell my students that I'm lucky to work with them and learn from them.
It's mutual. The whole experience is a tremendous boost of energy, especially knowing that you might have changed somebody’s life. When I was in Za'atari, many of the kids were asking me about the Japanese flutist. “Who’s the Japanese flutist?” Apparently, a flutist from Japan went and played in the camp just a few months before I got there, and everybody was obsessed with him! The best part is that they assumed that we knew each other because we both came from outside the country.
When you were in Beirut last year, one of the travel bans affected you. What do you take from these evolving bans?
Frankly, it continues to be ridiculous that one signature can change the lives of so many. But, I'm used to it. I didn't want to blow getting stuck in Beirut out of proportion, but the media did. I was in Hamburg and had a really exciting concert with Yo-Yo Ma. I then landed in Beirut, and opened my phone to a notification that Green Card holders with Syrian passports are banned from entering the U.S. My reaction, a stupid one, was “What will happen to my plants?”
I was in a very privileged situation. I was in Beirut with a hotel room and money to buy food. I could think of a plan, if necessary. The ban made me put that in perspective because I was definitely annoyed and angry, but imagine your home is gone, your family is gone, everything is gone. Think of all the people for who the travel ban is still imposed on (green card holders were lifted).
I had a show at night on February 1st and I didn't know if I would be able to travel or not the following day. But then I played—maybe the best I've played ever. When the context changes, there'll be more urgency to the art you do, even if the art you do is abstract.
The Mozart concerto became a protest song, but then green cards were no longer included in the ban. This back and forth, it's crazy. All these people who left their home because of war or any kind of problem and they manage to find elsewhere to call home. And then someone tells them, “You know what? This isn’t home either.”
In NYC, you’ve spoken about how running helps you disconnect. How does disconnecting facilitate your creative process?
Running has been a really exciting part of my life for the last six or seven years and I do lots of triathlons now. I enjoy the mess it leaves you with after you finish. It's a good way to disconnect, to not be glued to your phone. I’m not proud of it, but I find that the only time I’m not close to my phone is when I run or when I play. It's just me and my brain.
I don't think of it as ‘distracting’ though. I don't think people should do hobbies because they distract. That's the wrong way of looking at it. You don't take a break from work to go running. You do something because you enjoy it.
Would you mind explaining your involvement with the Silk Road Ensemble?
I knew about the Silk Road project since its inception. My dad heard about it on BBC and, when I was 24, he told me to keep an eye on it. Of course, I knew who Yo-Yo Ma was. Fast forward a few years, I’m meeting many members of Silk Road in the New York music scene. Then, in 2012, I got an email asking me if I am free and interested for a residency to workshop a piece by British composer David Bruce that has a clarinet part. It took me about a second to respond saying yes. I didn’t even read the details.
The project is very much in line with how I think about music: as a continuum. It’s a collective of musicians, thinkers, improvisers, composers, educators, and people who have a wide perspective of the whole world. That started in 2012 and, since then, I've been the clarinetist of the group. People on the top of their games challenge you to the maximum. Yo-Yo Ma has a unique and inspiring way of looking at the world and working on music. He simply leads by example and although he doesn't need compliments, I’m deeply impressed when I see someone like him.
The project works because all of the individuals in the project are equally solid. To be a good artist, and a good person, you need to have three things. You need something to say. That's the most important, what does your art say? If it doesn't say anything then it shouldn't exist. Secondly, you have to have a tool to say what you want to say. It can be anything, like sculpture, painting, writing, or a clarinet. Third, you have to have the skills to use the tool to say what you want to say. When you have a group of people who have something to say, and who have the tools and the skills, and are open to what other people want to say, then you have a very rewarding environment to be part of.
You are someone who naturally weaves between genres or canons. What is your view of the concepts of Eastern and Western music as canons in your experience as an abstract artist?
East and west of what? I don't think such a thing exists, to be honest. I understand the need for archiving—in order to identify music and what part of the world it comes from—but this is 2017. Some of the best Mozart happens in Korea. Some of the best tango might be in a bar in New York.
I grew up playing Mozart. And for me, Mozart was Syrian too. I have listened to it here and in Syria, and I played it in Syria. It's equally Syrian. He belongs to humanity. I remember, back in the day, there was a store called Tower Records in New York. It was the most interesting revelation for me because it was the first time that I went into a music store of that size. And there's a huge rack for Rock&Roll and a huge rack for R&B, a huge rack for folk music. And then there is this little tiny drawer for “World Music.” The whole world. Really? And when they say classical music, they have Philip Glass and Mozart in the same category. What does that mean?
For me, playing music is really about bringing pleasure, in the most noble meaning of the word. I think it's very important for me to play what I like. I also don't play what I don't like. I happen to like a variety of things. The borders where something stops and something begins doesn't interest me. Some people think of Hewar and my band as a collaboration between “East and West.” It's bullshit. Its people using instruments to speak, where the clarinet is not only Western and the Oud is not only Eastern.
Are there boundaries?
There aren’t. Of course, if you want to hear really authentic songs from the villages of Northern Syria, you have to go to the villages to know what they are. The whole “East meets West,” it's happened. It's no longer new, there is no settling. I think you need to do something that is genuine, which reflects the collective interest of people who are playing. Where the collective is larger than the sum of the parts.
What is one record that you're listening to that you'd recommend for readers? And anything you want to add about your latest project?
It's an interesting question. I'll take an opportunity to suggest people I know. Some of the bands that I'm listening to don't need my service, like Michael Jackson.
There's a band in New York that I really like called Dawn of Midi. Check them out. I often listen to what my friends are doing musically. I've been in composition mode with less time to listen. A friend of mine, a Palestinian clarinetist Mohamed Najem has a recent album which is great. There are few works by the singer in Songs for Days to Come, Dima Orsho. She's doing lots of lots of new things. There are beautiful new pieces by Kareem Roustom, a composer I collaborate with often. Hello Psychaleppo is another artist to follow.
Finally, Songs for Days to Come Vol. 2 will be released soon, in the summer we’ll record. I don't know if it's official or not but we might release a Vol. 3. There's always more room for days to come.
Kinan, thank you for this conversation and your time. I really appreciate it.
It's my pleasure.
Azmi Haroun is a Syrian-American writer and activist working on the Communications team for Open Society Foundations. While he has not returned to Syria since 2010, he has been writing ever since. He has previously lived in Paris, Dubai, and Morocco and is now settling into the restless pace of New York City. A musically-inclined, soccer-obsessed socialist who believes that fries stay inside the shawarma…