Chamberfest: Kinan Azmeh bears witness to the Syrian tragedy

Kinan Azmeh in front of a scene from Home Within. Photo: Piotr Poloczanski

Kinan Azmeh has not been able to go home to Syria for six years. It is an “impossibility.” So like most of the world, he has watched the unfolding tragedy from afar.

Azmeh is an internationally respected clarinetist and an acclaimed composer and soloist who has worked around the world. He is also part of the Silk Road Ensemble with the great cellist Yo Yo Ma. The ensemble won a Grammy this year. But Syria is never far from his mind and his heart.

“When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, I was learning about it on TV,” he said in an interview. He was struck musically dumb by it.

“Somehow I was not able to write music for almost a year. Looking at it retrospectively, I was experiencing emotions that were very complex.”

These emotions forced him to think about his personal situation as an artist.

“Some people say you do art to reflect upon the world. Others say you do art to recreate the world in an ideal way. My philosophy is that you do art to experience emotions that you don’t have the luxury of experiencing in real life.

“When Syrian uprising happened I found myself experiencing emotions that were far more complex than I have ever experienced in my life. I was not able to write something. I was thinking what I was witnessing was something far more important than producing music.”

After some time he started to realize something seminal about the uprising and himself.

“It took a year to realize that the Syrian uprising was about people wanting to express opinions. The music I do, this is my main tool of self-expression.” He realized that he had to use music to express himself, in solidarity with the Syrian people.

“That’s at the core of what people wanted to do when they went into the streets. That gave me the courage to start expressing myself again.”

So he and a regular collaborator Syrian-Armenian visual artist Kevork Mourad started to document their feelings and the result of that is the performance art piece Home Within which explores the Syrian revolution in an abstract journey that attempts to redefine home. The show is touring North America raising awareness and funds for Syrian refugees. It is at Chamberfest on Thursday night.

“Home Within is not about summarizing the Syrian tragedy and it’s not about political slogans so much as it is about documenting how we have felt at different times from the beginning of the uprising until now. It’s a tragedy that continues to unfold in front of our eyes.

“I was not thinking artistically. When you go through moment like this, the last thing I was thinking about was ‘What do I do with my clarinet right now. You start to look at your instrument and think ‘How irrelevant this is right now. People are being shot in the streets while you are working on being in tune.

“But in the meantime you realize you have to hold on to your tools.”

Azmeh says this period of artistic self-doubt was quite important for him to go through.

“I realized that the clarinet does not stop a bullet, it does not feed people, it is does not bring a free, democratic secular Syria which is something that I would like to see. It’s not going to do any of this. But, for me, I have a tool for self expression and I should use it.

“It was a good reminder that art is not the luxury I thought it was. It’s my tool.” It is his necessity.

Azmeh first picked up his “tool” as a youngster in Damascus.

“I started on the violin at five years old. That didn’t go very well because I’m left-handed. I switched to the clarinet at age seven. Now that I look back at it, I don’t think the instrument is what matters, really. I am happy to be playing any instrument. Don’t get me wrong, I love the clarinet. I don’t want to disappoint the clarinet lovers, but for me it’s really just a tool to express something.

“To do anything you have to have three things: You have to have an idea which is the most important thing. You have to have the tools the instruments to say what you want to say and you have to have the skill to use the tools.

Azmeh studied music in Damascus first at a conservatory for younger music students and then at the Arab Conservatory of Music. At the University of Damascus he also studied engineering. He then moved to New York Coty and attended the Julliard School of Music obtaining a Master’s and a PhD in music. He has remained in New York and lives there to this day.

“My plan wasn’t to stay in New York. I was supposed to be coming home. I have always thought of Damascus and New York as both being homes for me.”

His life in New York has coincided with tumultuous times.

“Everywhere you live you will witness different important events. I think it’s natural. I don’t think anybody can be well-prepared for things like this.”

That’s an understatement when you consider he landed in New York a week before the Sept. 11, 2001 attack happened.

“The city (New York) is overwhelming. And that right after I moved in this thing happened and I had to figure out ‘What do I do? What happened?’ And then I had to try to make sense of what all this is.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that he was an Arab in New York City post-9/11.

“But the more time you spend there, the more you start to understand how it works and you feel at home. The more you feel at home the more able you are to manoeuvre what the hometown goes through.”

That philosophy helped him navigate being mistakenly swept up in the first travel ban imposed by the Trump Administration. Azmeh was prevented temporarily from returning home to New York last February.

Azmeh still has family in Damascus. He is able to speak to them fairly regularly and they are fine “more or less”. But they live in a part of Syria that is relatively tranquil.

He still thinks a lot about the Damascus he left behind 16 years ago.

“It is the oldest continuously inhabited capital city in the world. There are layers of history that you see everywhere you go. That was always something that I noticed growing up in Damascus. There are Roman things, ancient Greek things, old Islamic buildings.

“You live well. Damascus is a very exciting city. In some ways it is a very cosmopolitan town. You hear Armenian music, Kurdish music, Arabic music, even ancient Syriac music in the streets.

“I lived a happy childhood. And because I am a musician I had more freedom to manoeuvre than someone whose job was more political. I’m not a singer-songwriter. I enjoyed more freedom than other artists because of what I do. It was always too abstract to be easily interpreted.”

As a young person he studied classical music.

“I relate to Beethoven the way a German does. I think all this music is the heritage of the world. I am not a big fan of defining something as from the East or the West, North or South or whatever. I was equally inspired by improvisation in all kinds of music including classical music too. Mozart was a fabulous composer but he was also an improviser and people may forget that.

“I have always liked the idea of composing/performing/improvisation. I have always thought that influences could come from anywhere. I have and always had a large appetite for different kinds of music, even hip hop not admiration for the rapper Kendrick Lamar.

In his youth he learned about the music of the rest of the world. Now that he lives in the West he is learning about the music of Syria. He established a band in Syria because he wanted to work with an Oud player who now lives in Chicago. The idea, he says, was to learn the traditional music of Syria through the Oud player.

“A lot of  the time when Arabic music is played people think it’s ancient. People forget that there is art being produced right now in Algeria, Tunisia or Lebanon, in Palestine and Syria. There is something being created now by artists who are open to what is happening in the world now in a very difficult environment.”

Azmeh hopes his show will open up doors and windows for people. That’s what art is supposed to be about, he says.

“I hope it triggers curiosity in people, not only to be moved by the art but to investigate more what produced this work.”

Home Within with Kinan Azmeh and Kevork Mourad
When: Thursday Aug. 3 at 10 p.m.
Where: La Nouvelle Scene Gilles Desjardins, 333 King Edward Ave.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.