Kinan Azmeh on channelling Syrian culture through the clarinet

Ahead of his Abu Dhabi show, the musician describes how his eclectic work is inspired by his homeland

Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh will perform in Abu Dhabi with his CityBand. Photo: NYU Abu Dhabi
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Kinan Azmeh likes to keep it moving.

The Syrian clarinetist and composer, 46, is defined both for the breadth of his work as much as for the quality of it.

His trip to Abu Dhabi to performan at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre on Wednesday is a case in point.

It follows the successful debut of new opera Songs for the Days to Come on June 4, which is currently running at Theatre am Domhof in Osnabruck, Germany until July 8. His Abu Dhabi gig is less lavish but equally vital.

Backed by his CityBand, the quartet is set to play a dynamic instrumental set blending virtuosic jazz with the tender folk melodies of Syria.

The fast and loose approach of the band's performances is a far cry from the labour-intensive demands of the opera, but Azmeh says they all stem from the same source.

"I like to do different things but they all have a shared purpose. The Abu Dhabi show, for instance, will be an intimate one and I look at it as inviting people to my lab," he tells The National.

"It is here where I experiment with different elements of jazz, electronic and Arabic music.

“Sometimes these pieces will flow on to be performed in a future album with an orchestra or other projects."

At times, it is the other way around.

The Abu Dhabi performance could feature reworked songs from latest album Flow (2021), a collaboration with Germany’s NDR Big band.

It's a sumptuous piece of work and howcases Azmeh's approach to the clarinet: soulful, playful and full of vigour.

"I am too close to the instrument to say what I love about it, but I do find it comes close to the sound of the human voice," he says. "It has a character and a dynamic range and register that allows you to go to many places."

Born in Damascus, Azmeh studied the clarinet at a local music conservatory before graduating from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.

Cultural exchange has been at the forefront of his oeuvre. Azmeh recorded with Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in addition to Yo-Yo Ma's Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble.

"I wouldn't necessarily describe my work as fusion, as that word implies that it is a form of watering down," he says. “My music is inspired by several traditions without being limited by any of them.

"If I can get a little philosophical about this, I don’t look at myself as building bridges because the bridges are already there. What matters is how we use them and how we communicate with others and I am doing that in an artistic way."

Syria remains a key inspiration throughout his work. The aforementioned Songs for the Days to Come features poems by contemporary Syrian artists set to chamber music, melding Arabic and western traditions.

Meanwhile the evocative Daraa, a key track from Flow, is inspired by an old Syrian folk tune.

"There are many artists from Syria who are travelling and bringing their music to all corners of the world," he says. "I do hope the collective effort we make will make people become more curious about our part of the world and its culture, history and art.

"I hope that people make that effort as opposed to just getting a summary of our culture. If you want to know the Syrian story, for example, you have to listen to 24 million people telling their stories.

“It's the same with Syrian music, you will have to listen to as many Syrian artists as you can to get a real appreciation of it and I am happy to be one of them.”

Kinan Azmeh City Band plays at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre on Wednesday at 8pm. Tickets are Dh52.50 from

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Updated: June 28, 2022, 2:19 PM