Syrian “Music of Strangers” clarinetist Kinan Azmeh finds kinship and belonging in artistic collaboration

By Bliss Bowen

Kinan Azmeh’s music-driven world travels have taught him the special meaning of home

Some of the most moving scenes in director Morgan Neville’s 2016 documentary “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” involved clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a profoundly soulful artist born and raised in Syria. Filmed at his apartment in New York, where he has lived for 18 years, Azmeh offered a definition of home as eloquent as it is complex: “The place you want to contribute to without feeling you have to justify it.”

“This is something I really believe in,” he confirms during an absorbing conversation while on a break at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he is doing a residency. “The whole idea of home has been a very dynamic concept for me for many years.” There is no “concrete definition” that will last forever, says Azmeh, who holds a doctorate in music from City University of New York, but the concept crystallized in recent years as travel to Damascus became increasingly impossible.

If “The Music of Strangers” broadened Azmeh’s audience, being stranded for two days in Beirut by the Trump administration’s January 2017 travel ban greatly increased his name recognition as major media outlets seized on his story. The experience left him grateful and humbly insistent that his “little, tiny story” was nothing compared to the dislocation experienced by refugees around the world who’ve been deprived of their homes, freedom and dignity when “suddenly somebody signs a piece of paper.” Seeing fellow New Yorkers — friends as well as total strangers — demonstrating in solidarity at JFK Airport deepened his sense of home in the U.S.

“It was a wonderful feeling to have,” he recalls. “It was very important for me, and very moving, to see how the artistic community also mobilized. The Seattle Symphony put together this wonderful concert where they invited me to play, basically featuring music from the seven countries [targeted by the travel ban]. When you know you’re not alone in something like this, and there is a community trying to contribute — for me, that has a lot with how this conversation started: What is home. You know? Because now I am feeling more than ever that it’s a place also that I would like to contribute to.”

Globally renowned for his Silk Road Ensemble contributions, Azmeh has also earned acclaim for his agile melding of classical, Arabic and jazz disciplines in recordings and tours with his trio Hewar (translation: “dialogue”); with pianist Dinuk Eijeratne; and with CityBand, the quartet he is bringing to The Broad Stage in Santa Monica next Thursday. He acknowledges feeling most creative when collaborating with other artists.

“I’m somebody who’s interested in conversing with people, not only musically,” he says. “Because all of us have our own thoughts and ideas about grand topics of the world, right? But the only way these concepts become more crystallized, and more meaningful, is when you juxtapose them against somebody else who does an equal amount of research in terms of the ideas they are trying to project. Music, I feel, is the same way.

“When I play with somebody, certainly the outcome is larger than the sum of the parts. It’s always more interesting when you bounce ideas off each other. Also because of the nature of my instrument, which is a single-line instrument, which means I play one note at a time, it lends itself naturally to collaboration. But I believe it applies to all instruments. Musical instruments are meant to be tools for communication. …

“There’s something far more exciting when you combine your voice with somebody else. They are sometimes in harmony, sometimes they contradict each other — but that is a great representation of how life is. I think by nature we are all collaborators. The exception is when people don’t want to collaborate with anybody. If you think of all human civilization, it came out of collaboration. Nobody was ever able to achieve something on his or her own, both horizontally and vertically. Horizontally meaning not collaborating with people who exist at the same time; and vertical, not collaborating with people that exist before you. In that sense, we are all collaborators by nature, and it is hard to be in isolation.”

While Azmeh’s CityBand concert will focus on music he has been performing for some time, his forthcoming album “Uneven Sky” will try to “put the improviser, the composer and the performer under one umbrella,” he says. Due in March, the double-disc set will include a suite for improvisation with orchestra, concertos written for him, and compositions of his own, including a piece inspired by the writings of Muslim Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi. Growing up in a country whose rich heritage entwined Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian and Kurdish music, the classically trained Azmeh started composing and improvising at an early age. Consequently, he says, he has always perceived music as a continuum.

“I don’t see a real difference between what is jazz and what is East music or what is music from the West,” he explains. “Bringing it back to what I mentioned earlier about how we use music to communicate, or art in general — in that sense, there is no room for geographic categories of music.”

Despite a full schedule that includes projects with two filmmakers and a painter, when possible Azmeh still leads music workshops for kids at refugee centers (as he was shown doing in “The Music of Strangers”). Often he winds up being the one who gets schooled.

“Kids have the power to make you forget their situation,” he observes. “One time I was doing a workshop in, maybe it was Lebanon. We finished the lesson a bit early so I told them, ‘OK’ — there were a number of girls — I said, ‘Girls, what do you want to do?’ Nobody expressed anything so I said, ‘How about we write songs?’ They said, ‘OK.’ So I told them, ‘Let’s choose the topics for our lyrics. How about we write about home?’ No one said anything. I said, ‘How about we write about freedom?’ Nobody said anything. Then they started collectively to giggle. Then one of them said they wanted to write love songs. They wanted to give me names of boys they maybe loved in the camps. The girls were between the ages of like 8 and 11. It was incredibly cute. You forget you are in a tent somewhere in this made-up space, you forget these are girls who are acting exactly like they should be, you know? But of course, it hits you once you leave the camp and you go back to your hotel where you are staying — and you know these girls are staying where you saw them.”

Conversation circles back to home. In New York, Azmeh’s often inspired to collaborate with new artists he encounters — “the curse of a city that has way too much,” he jokes.

“But I’m equally interested in developing all the relationships. Like my CityBand is a band I’ve been playing with for 10 years now. We’ve developed a connection that is very meaningful for me; when you understand each other without talking about anything, and you just go and play and it works. So I try to have a cornerstone, a collaboration that already exists, and through that, I invite new collaborators, you know? It’s like having a family and you’re inviting people home.”

Kinan Azmeh CityBand performs Thursday, Feb. 7, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $45, $65 or $85. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.

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