Making music storytelling

Kinan Azmeh on working in refugee centres, storytelling, Syria and The Music of Strangers.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kinan Azmeh: "When I was a little kid, I was the young clarinetist from Damascus."
Kinan Azmeh: "When I was a little kid, I was the young clarinetist from Damascus." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Grand Central Terminal multi-sensory Interactive Experience inside Vanderbilt Hall for Morgan Neville's The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble, Kinan Azmeh spoke with me on his work at refugee centres, being the "young clarinetist from Damascus", storytelling, and what home means to him.

Last year, Kinan was unable to perform at Lotus Club with Cristina Pato, Kojiro Umezaki, Colin Jacobsen, Shane Shanahan, Joseph Gramley, Evan Ziporyn, Johnny Gandelsman, Sandeep Das, Abigail Washburn, Logan Coale, Nicholas Cords, and Yo-Yo Ma because he was premiering the film at a refugee camp in Jordan. I brought up Gianfranco Rosi's Oscar nominated Fire At Sea (Fuocoammare) on the Lampedusa refugee crisis during our conversation.

A Music Of Strangers multi-sensory Interactive Experience with Anne-Katrin Titze
A Music Of Strangers multi-sensory Interactive Experience with Anne-Katrin Titze Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: I talked with Yo-Yo and Morgan at Lotus Club last year.

Kinan Azmeh: Oh, fabulous.

AKT: You unfortunately weren't there.

KA: For the première of the film?

AKT: Exactly. We were told that you were visiting a refugee camp at that time.

KA: Maybe I was. Actually, I was. Right.

AKT: Are you still going regularly?

KA: I am trying to go as regularly as I can. There's nothing regular in that kind of thing, that kind of work.

AKT: Regular may not be the right word. I didn't mean routine.

KA: No, yes, regular in the sense that I always try to make a point to go when I can, of course. Last time I was there, that was in September. I did like a one day visit in a school that hosts lots of refugee kids in Lebanon. I try to do whatever I can. Whenever I'm in Europe I try to go a lot to where the refugee centers are and to play there.

The Music of Strangers in Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall
The Music of Strangers in Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It is one of the highlights of the film. Your visit at the refugee camp is at the core of the film, I thought.

KA: You know, the aim wasn't that it would be a highlight. My aim personally was that people know that you can do something. No matter what you do, there's a way you can help somebody else.

AKT: Exactly.

KA: For me, actually, even more important was to just play with those kids. People forget that playing is kids' most important job. That's what they're supposed to be doing. And to go and play with them - as simple as that.

AKT: That is what is highlighted. You don't have to be a masterful musician, as you are, to go and do something with these kids.

KA: There are so many things you can do. I mean, you can even go and help out just collecting garbage, or cleaning a tent or painting a wall. Anything. The last thing people want to feel is that they are left alone. That they are abandoned. And that's how many people feel.

AKT: Did you see Fire At Sea?

KA: I haven't, no. I heard about it, but I haven't seen it.

AKT: We are here at Grand Central Terminal in this fantastic building. How do you feel about playing here?

Silk Road Ensemble member Kinan Azmeh: "Whenever I'm in Europe I try to go a lot to where the refugee centers are and to play there."
Silk Road Ensemble member Kinan Azmeh: "Whenever I'm in Europe I try to go a lot to where the refugee centers are and to play there." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KA: I was saying earlier, it was one of my dreams to play in a train station. You know, growing up, Damascus doesn't have an Underground. We don't have a Métro. So when I was growing up I always wondered, how does it feel to play in a subway station? This never materialised. Maybe I'm lucky that it didn't materialise. Not that I have anything against playing at a Métro stop but then here we are, playing at a very over-the-top train station.

And actually for the launch of the film I'm playing with family members. I consider Silk Road as my family too. It's quite amazing. I never usually play at this hour of the morning. You know, that's not my usual playing time but it's quite exciting.

AKT: As somebody who travels as much as you do, do you have a concept of home?

KA: I do. I do have a strong concept of home, actually. I think home is the place you want to contribute to without having to justify it. For me that's home. Home is not only where your memories are and it's not only the place that offers you comfort. It's the place where you feel you want to contribute without having to justify it. But also I think the idea of home changes with time. I think the more you zoom out, the more your home becomes all-encompassing.

The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble poster at Grand Central Terminal
The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble poster at Grand Central Terminal Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I'll give you an example. When I was a little kid, I was the young clarinetist from Damascus. And then I'm no longer young, so I'm the clarinetist from Damascus. You start to tour internationally, so you become the Syrian clarinetist. I think the natural next step is that you become the clarinetist. It doesn't mean that you're abandoning identities. It's actually more. All of your identities become one. It's not bound by geography.

AKT: Is music storytelling?

KA: Music is certainly one of the forms of storytelling. It's not only about storytelling because you can do also abstract things too with music. I think it can open up the imagination for different interpretations of a storytelling.

Read what Cristina Pato had to say on crossing the river of forgetfulness, performance and the interactive experience of The Music Of Strangers.

The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble premieres on HBO March 6, 2017 at 8:00pm in the US, and is available on DVD in the UK.

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