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6Qs with Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh //

byMarwa Helal

kinanIn the last month alone, Kinan Azmeh has traveled with his music to New York, Berlin, Damascus, Washington, Limassol, Nicosia and Abu Dhabi. Born in Damascus, Kinan is a graduate of New York’s Juilliard school. He has been hailed as a “virtuoso” by The New York Times. One of Syria’s rising stars, his sound is distinct and familiar all at once. Appropriately, Kinan responds to our 6Qs from an airport lounge in Amman (after 12 hours of flying).

Place to compose: Airport lounge
Favorite Sound: Rain
Favorite Fruit: Newest favorite is mango

Kinan Azmeh’s City Band – “Merkin”

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1. You’re working on several projects right now — tell us a little about each.
My City Band project, in which I am joined by a New York-based trio — Kyle Sanna, (guitar) John Hadfield (percussion) and Josh Myers (bass) — is my newest. We just performed at the Library of Congress and will be on our first European tour in November. It is an exciting project for me as

I am joined by very energetic players who have no boundaries, we are not preoccupied by what musical genre or geographical affiliation we belong to, therefore it is very fresh and exciting. The music itself borrows elements from Arabic music, jazz, and free improvisations.

In the meantime, I am completing film scores for three films, one American documentary, one Iranian feature, and one Syrian short. All this while I am also on tour releasing my newest album Complex Stories, Simple Sounds with Sri Lankan Pianist Dinuk Wijeratne (we just had our European launch at the Berlin Philharmonic).

Kinan Azmeh and Dinuk Wijeratne – “Ibn Arabi Postlude”

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2. You studied physics/engineering  — how did you end up becoming a professional musician?
I actually did my undergrad in both, music and electrical engineering, so I never think of it as ‘I started’ and ‘I ended up.’ I think of everything you do as being an essential part of how you evolve. I am sure that if I spoke Russian some of the sounds of the language would find some way into my music. And I am sure my electrical engineering degree is there somehow while I’m creating my musical ideas. When I finished my undergrad I did not think twice before applying to music schools for my higher education. I was and still am very much obsessed with physics but I guess my music obsession is the same multiplied by a hundred. The transition was clear after winning the Nicolay Rubinstein music competition in Moscow when I was 21, it gave me enough self confidence and courage to pursue the thorny future that comes with music.

3. You have a very versatile playing style — what do you attribute that to?
I don’t believe in divisions of styles. While I do understand when people say classical music sounds different from jazz, rock, etc, I don’t really understand when people think that you can do either one or the other.

I like the idea of the diverse musician who maneuvers freely between seemingly contrasting worlds, music is music after all.

I got exposed to lots of different music growing up: I was classically trained in Syria, a country known for deep traditions in Arabic classical music, yet I was also exposed to jazz, rock, Eastern European folk and techno. Later on, I found myself using elements of these styles subconsciously. I love it when people come to me after a performance and say, ‘Was this piece inspired by such and such?’ Lots of the times they mention elements that I was not aware existed!

I never worry about to what genre this piece of music will belong, it is not up to me after all, the listener is the one who is creating the musical experience with his/her ears and brain, and it is only him/her who will have the power of associations.

5. Your piece, “Airports” is one of our favorites — please tell us the story behind it for our readers.

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Having lived between New York and Damascus for the past 10 years, I have made JFK my main hub when I come to New York. Usually, in every airport in the world there are two lanes, a lane for visitors and a lane for citizens. Every time I land, I go to the visitors lane as I am on a visa, and when I show my Syrian passport, it is as if a third lane opens up and I am sent to a room on the side where I get questioned. This is the same room where I meet friends from Iran, Iraq, Cuba, Sudan, North Korea, etc. They keep you waiting for hours sometimes. After a few years of doing this I decided to start using my time creatively, and so I wrote “Airports.” I am always keen on playing this piece everywhere I go as a means of musical protest. I usually ask the audience to sing along and I dedicate it to all those people I meet in that famous room — people who do not have the means to protest from a stage like I am privileged to have.

6. If you weren’t making music — what would you be doing?
I would either be a chef in a little, tiny restaurant (where it is the chef who brings the food to the customers — you know, I still cannot let go of the show part!!), or a farmer.

For more on Kinan, visit >>

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