A universal rhapsody: Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh performs in Cairo

Photo by Bassam Al Zoghby

On 7 June, Syrian clarinetist, Kinan Azmeh and the City Band invited the audience to a large palette of musical landscapes, unveiling a musician marked by endless energy, a profound dedication and respect for his craft

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

The last two weeks were filled with many interesting concerts, yet Thursday 7 June was especially intense as it offered a number of attractive music events across a range of Cairo venues. Al-Nour Wal Amal, the blind girls’ orchestra graced Wekalet Al-Ghouri, the Cairo Opera Orchestra and Cairo Opera soloists performed excerpts from popular musicals at the Cairo Opera, and Darb 1718 hosted Zeid Hamdan and  Maryam Saleh, the Lebanese-Egyptian duo.

Operating under Al-Mawred Al-Thakafy, what is more, El-Genaina Theatre presents its stage to many well-known Arab and international musicians. On that day, a Syrian clarinetist, Kinan Azmeh and the City Band performed compositions that combined elements of Arab music, with world music, interweaving the performance with jazz, blues and Latin accents, and topping it with the occasional classical sensitivity. An interesting mixture kept the audience attentive and inspired. Understandably, the evening touched also on Syrian political struggles and Azmeh opened the concert with his solo composition on clarinet, A Sad Morning, Every Morning which is his “little prayer for home” and in which his instrument accompanies the listener a journey from whispering soft sounds to the penetrating cry of an artist for his home-country.

As the concert continued, the audience was yet to discover a large palette of musical landscapes created by Azmeh’s clarinet and the band. Azmeh explored the large range of the clarinet, at times stressing soft round notes, at other times challenging the highest limits of the instrument. Exploring and as if experimenting with the clarinet, Azmeh’s technical ease helped him move across different styles.

Of course Azmeh was not alone on stage; he was accompanied by three US-born musicians, equally impressive with their skills and originality. The percussionist, John Hadfield – without forcing his presence – took away the audience’s breath on several occasions. As such, the City Band consists of four professional musicians; each of them adds a unique spirit and experience to the band.

Kyle Sanna, the guitarist studied jazz guitar and composition, moving between France and the US; John Hadfield, the percussionist, has a classical training while his musical explorations take him towards world music; bassist Josh Myers has a jazz academic background. With Azmeh having a versatile background, there is a lot of push-and-pull artistic behavior which allows the band’s members to reach a unique spirit and offer interesting musical propositions.

Work with the City Band is one of the many projects of the highly energetic Syrian clarinetist. Today, in his mid-thirties, Kinan Azmeh is internationally renowned clarinetist and composer. Azmeh obtained his bachelor’s degree from the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus and received a masters from the Juilliard School of Music. Currently he is working on his PhD in performing and compositions at City University of New York. Throughout his career Azmeh’s musical journey touched on many genres. Soaked in all of them in parallel – through many projects – he refuses to draw clear lines between the genres and remains cautious before formulating standardized categorizations of music. “I like the whole jumping around the genres. There are different types of freedom in each of them,” Azmeh says.

Elements of improvisation gave additional autonomy to musical meanders performed by the City Band, a spirit that won the attention and appreciation of the audience gathered at Al-Azhar Park. “I always enjoy freedom in music. Of course there is an amount of freedom in a Brahms quintet or a Mozart quintet, yet I also explore other genres; I try to get exposed to other people. I don’t want to be enclosed in my own bubble.”

Apart from performing in renowned concert halls with international orchestras, Azmeh composes his own music; he is being commissioned by numerous institutions and individuals and, in return, he also commissions composers to write for him. His compositions include numerous works for solo instruments as well as chamber formations and orchestra as he continues to juggle between genres and cultures.

Though he has lived in the United States since year 2000, Azmeh is strongly attached to his Syrian roots; yet here again, he does not like to stress divisions when referring to musical or artistic sensibilities. “I am Syrian by nationality and at heart. Musically, which is a manifestation of who I truly am, I like to have the widest palette of colours to paint; in music I love to borrow elements from here and there.” He believes that, as humans, we all share same sensibilities; and it is the political vocabulary that forces one to create divisions that in fact have no place among humans or creators.

“There is no such thing as a West being more rational or an East being more emotional,” Azmeh comments. “Comparing various cultures, we easily find that emotional differences are not that huge. We laugh and cry for the same reasons, and we express it in the same way; we tend to create the same sounds and picture them musically.” Azmeh adds that when attending concerts that we do not relate to culturally, we are touched providing they are well done and we are really focused. “Though I do not like all those cliché divisions, this is maybe where we can think in terms of high art and low art. High art has the power of touching the listener (or viewer) regardless of his background; this is where we find music that we like to invest ourselves in and which remains in our soul. On the other hand there is another [low] kind of art that we enjoy for a minute but forget fast.”

City Band uses different shades of their individual sensibilities and puts them into one creative pot. Differences in cultural background become a sealing factor of the four musicians. Not only do they offer an unforgettable musical experience to which many listeners can relate, their creativity, professionalism and serious approach to the craft is among fundamental reasons for their success. To Azmeh, City Band is his home, though not the first home he has found outside Syria.

“I never wanted to become an expatriate in the US. I wanted to be known as a local Syrian artist, if any.” In 2003, searching for an expression of home, Azmeh formed Hewar, his first band consisting of three Syrian musicians: clarinet, oud and voice. The band released its CD in 2005, the first of five that represent different projects of Azmeh’s. Being a Syrian based in the US, Azmeh believes that forming a band means claiming a home, something he might have hesitated to do at first. “A band is a family away from a family,” he explains. Though he still performs with Hewar, the City Band is his home now and through collaboration with City Band members, he continues to learn, perform and develop as a musician.

Azmeh finds his freedom in music, and being “a son of academia,” he believes that musical education gave him an important vocabulary which now allows him to formulate many sentences and understand many musical solutions. Humble in his approach to life, Azmeh continuously re-assess his music and performances, hoping to continue the musical journey and artistic development. He sees that one cannot be a modernist if one does not know the rules. “Music is the art of illusion based on mathematics. You cannot break the rules if you do not know them first. Though there are some exceptional people who have an extraordinary talent and manage to make something new not knowing what is old, having a background in education gives one a platform to analyse what works and what doesn’t. It is the scientific knowledge that helps you to improve, fix yourself and move forward.”

Azmeh underlines that music is not an easy craft; it requires effort and dedication. “The audience will always know if you have spent time working on a piece or took it easily. Being accepted on a popular basis does not necessarily make one a good musician; maybe the success is based on clever PR or good looks.”

As such Azmeh continues to review his work until he is completely satisfied with the output. When it comes to writing music, Azmeh reveals that the process is not as easy as it may look; he feels that putting actual thoughts on paper can be a limiting factor. As a composer he continues to search for the best translation of his creative energy into the notes. “For every single piece that I’ve written, there are maybe 150 that were thrown in the garbage. It is not about perfection. Having looked at my composition a few days later it might not touch me. If I don’t like my work, how can I expect other people to like it? Very few of my compositions end up on the stage.”

It is almost impossible to understand when Azmeh finds time for all the projects he pursues and his restless need for continuous technical and intellectual development. It is also very apparent that his profound dedication and respect for the craft opens many doors and lifts his name up in the musical world. With all that on his shoulders, Azmeh seems to enjoy what he is doing while the clarinet became his first language. As he confirms, it is through the clarinet that he can express himself better than in any of the three languages he masters: Arabic, English and French. The performance at El-Genaina Theatre revealed a musician who sees his instrument as a natural extension of his own self. It is for the audience to pick up the meanings that the band and Azmeh offers, whether to reflect on them or simply enjoy.

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