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Sharing secrets onstage

Kinan Azmeh’s music is hard to classify. It gently captures the audience’s soul, with its smooth mixture of jazz, classical and Arab notes. The 35-year-old Syrian virtuoso is a clarinet player and composer. He loves to blend together different music genres he has come across in Damascus, New York and other cities.

“It’s like developing your own vocabulary, a mix of Arabic and English words, and even some that you invent. It does not matter which words you use; what matters is the message,” Azmeh tells Egypt Independent.

Azmeh believes that classifications like Eastern and Western are only useful in sorting music albums on store shelves. “How would you classify my music for a Chinese audience? Is it Western because Syria falls to the West of China?” he asks. “Music doesn’t have borders.”

On Thursday night, Azmeh launched his fifth album, “Elastic City,” at El Genaina Theater in Azhar Park. “Elastic City,” which tells of his experiences in New York City, is his third collaboration with City Band, a group composed of guitarist Kyle Sanna, percussionist John Hadfield and bass player Josh Myres. Azmeh’s collaboration with City Band began in 2008 when they produced their album, “Syrian Contemporary Chamber Music,” followed by “Complex Stories, Simple Sounds” in 2009. The three latest albums, which mix Arabic music with classic fusion and jazz, are very different from Azmeh’s earlier works, “Nine Days of Solitude” produced in 2005 and “The Damascus Session” released in 2006. Back then, Azmeh played the lute and, along with the Hewar Band, experimented with fusing Arab music with classical.

Azmeh does not reside solely in Syria; he moves between two cities: the capital of jazz, New York City, and Damascus, one of the most important centers for Arab music. This diverse background is reflected in the music Azmeh produces and his experimentation with different genres.

The composer also experiments with playing different musical instruments, because he wants to get the maximum out of each instrument. “Knowing the instruments gives you clues for how to ideally use them when you compose music,” he says.

Perhaps this was most apparent during the concert at El Genaina, when City Band percussionist John Hadfield created sound effects by playing with simple materials, like sand, as he played his tambourine. Azmeh would not have masterfully composed and blended these rich sounds into his tracks without knowing the potential of every instrument.

Kinan Azmeh and City Band at El Genaina Theater

Azmeh admits to carefully selecting the titles of his songs to evoke meaning, but he does not like to overload music or include “shallow phrases,” like promoting world peace, to describe it. “Music has a greater value, higher than our daily lives,” he says.

Like most Syrian artists, Azmeh does not have the freedom to comment on ongoing events in his country. It seems, however, that he could not remain completely silent. The composer does not like direct messages, but feelings of deep sadness and mourning come through his music.

“I feel like I'm playing my inner secrets on stage, and listeners keep the secret. We share feelings of happiness, sadness and pleasure,” he says.

At El Genaina, Azmeh kicked off his performance with a solo track “Sad mourning, every morning,” which he dedicates to the Syrian martyrs. The song is a response to the past year and half of violence. “I can’t pretend to be a hero, or the voice of the Syrian revolution. All I wanted to do is pray for those who died and respect their sacrifices, in the lowest possible voice,” he says.

Some artists see art as a mirror of society; others see it as a mirror of the artist’s imagination of how society should be. Azmeh mixes these two visions. He believes that art is a long-term reaction to how a musician feels toward ongoing events around him.

“Music is a place to experience sadness, fear and even happiness, [strong feelings that] I did not feel in real life. But at the same time, what sharpens my feelings is coming from reality,” he says.

“The stage is the best platform for me to scream out loud, after 11,000 were killed last year. I also wanted the audience who is drowned in sadness to find a point of beauty. It's important for their humanity,” he says.

The audience responded by raising the Syrian flag and placards, turning the concert into a silent protest.

Kinan Azmeh is performing next on 14 June in Bielefeld, Germany, and in Tilburg, Holland, on 15 June.

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