Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh brings the classical music of Syria to World Cafe Live tonight

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Kinan Azmeh | photo by Jill Steinberg
Kinan Azmeh | photo by Jill Steinberg

“My personal philosophy is that you make art to experience emotions that you don’t have the luxury of experiencing in real life,” says clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh. In the three years since civil war erupted in his native Syria, there haven’t been many emotions that Azmeh hasn’t experienced. That surfeit led to his taking an entire year off from writing music beginning in March 2011.

“The reason for music disappeared for me,” he says. “There was something by far more major and definitely much bigger than me and the music I make. So I took a step back while I was trying to let it all in.”

Once he was able to take up his pen again, his first new work was “A Sad Morning, Every Morning,” the solo clarinet lament that will open his performance Friday night at World Café Live. “In a time of tragedy, people take a moment of silence at the beginning of an event,” Azmeh says. “For the last few years I’ve been opening every concert of mine with this moment of music.”

The title of the piece reflects Azmeh’s daily experience living in New York, where by the time he wakes up in the morning another day of strife and turmoil is nearly over back home in Damascus. “You turn on the computer first thing when you wake up in the morning in New York and put your hand on your heart, as we say in Arabic, and try to be prepared for the bad news from home. That’s continued for almost three years now.”

Azmeh has lived in New York City for more than ten years now, where he’s currently finishing his doctoral work at the City University of New York after graduating from Juilliard. Prior to leaving Syria he studied at the Damascus High institute of Music and was a member of the Syrian Symphony Orchestra. His own music blends classical and jazz with the music of his native region.

“Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world and has witnessed a lot of civilizations throughout history,” he says. “You find traces of Kurdish music, Armenian music, pre-Islamic Arabic music, church music from the Arab world, Islamic music from different periods, so I’m quite accustomed to diverse musical languages. I think that opened my appetite to keep discovering, so all these elements found their way into my music.”

Azmeh’s Philadelphia concert will be presented as part of LiveConnections’ ClassicAlive concert series, which seeks to expand the boundaries of classical music with exactly this sort of genre-crossing experimentation. “I think of music as a continuum,” Azmeh continues. “I don’t make a separation between what is jazz and what is world music and what is classical. In my own creative process I’m not interested in the barriers of where one genre stops and another one begins.”

The clarinetist’s long-standing quartet features bluegrass guitarist Kyle Sanna, world music percussionist John Hadfield, and jazz bassist Josh Myers. The group came together as a result of New York’s fertile music scene, where meetings between musicians of different stylistic bents are commonplace. “This group was the natural result of me living in New York,” Azmeh says. “There was a fluid pool of musicians who exchanged ideas constantly so that everybody is learning from each other, which is incredibly valuable.”

Azmeh hasn’t been able to return home since July 2012, and while his immediate circle of family and friends has remained safe throughout the conflict he says, “Worry is a daily business, only for me but for all the Syrians around the world.” Despite that tension, however, he remains hopeful for the future.

“As an optimist by nature, I think history moves only forward. I hope a Syrian secular and democratic state will be a reality in the near future. I might be delusional, but if the artists are not optimistic, then who will be?”

Kinan Azmeh performs at World Cafe Live tonight.  Tickets and information for the all-ages event can be found here.

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