NEW YORK: By the time New York City wakes up, nearly an entire day has passed in Syria with massive death and destruction.
Half a world away from home, New York-based Syrian musician Kinan Azmeh was inspired to compose “Every Day is a Sad Morning,” a score he dedicates to the victims of a conflict now in its third year.
“I don’t know what’s happening on the [Syrian] musical scene,” Azmeh said in a Manhattan cafe. “There are less concerts now, if anything. I hope people are listening to music, even having one second of happiness.
“In situations like these, people forget role of music,” he continued. “They think there isn’t time for music. [But] that’s when people need music. People need at least one moment of happiness, but the reality on the ground doesn’t make that easy.”
Azmeh said that he always dreamed of being a traveling musician but his intention, then as now, was to return to Damascus.
As a child, he recalled, his parents bought him a violin but, being left-handed, his ability to play it was restricted. After extensive research, and a suggestion from Encyclopedia Brittanica that the young Kinan try an even-handed instrument, the family traded the violin for a clarinet. This instrument carried him through to his doctoral studies in New York. Unlike the piano, it also gave him the freedom of a traveling musician.
“Looking back, it doesn’t matter what instrument I played,” he said. “It’s just a tool, a way to say what you want to say. Had I been able to explain what I needed to say, I wouldn’t need to play music.”
In Damascus he pursued parallel studies – engineering at Damascus University and clarinet at the Higher Institute of Music. It didn’t seem unusual for him. “I found myself running away from university to spend time at the institute,” he recalled.
He said he had no regrets about devoting four years to an engineering degree. “I don’t think for single moment that I wasted time,” he said. “It’s hard to know how we use our brains. Engineering helped me a lot with music ... The clarinet is a technological invention. Somebody studied acoustics to make it.”
Azmeh enrolled at Boston Conservatory in 2000 to pursue a master’s degree in music. He later transferred to Julliard, where he thought he would be more challenged, both in and outside the classroom.
“This is the best move I made in my professional career,” he recalled. “New York is incredible. It pushes you. It made me think about why I’m doing music. That’s not something you learn at school.”
Azmeh has made a home away from home here. His Brooklyn neighborhood is awash with Caribbean immigrants. “I feel at home in my little apartment in Prospect Park,” he said. “And before that in Harlem. Haitians, Cubans and Jamaicans stay up all night and play backgammon and music, watching the city go by. It reminds me of the villages in Syria. That’s what I love about New York.”
Much of the city, he said, had fallen into the unfortunate habit of keeping too busy to savor life as they should.
“I like people who have the time to think,” he said. “Things take time, energy and work, especially when it comes to the arts. I feel sorry for people who drink coffee fast in the subway.
“If you go to Carnegie Hall or the movies,” he continued, “at the end [of the show] you see people running to their cars. I think, ‘Why are they running? The credits are part of the movie.’ I love the city. I think I love the version I created in my head.”
His adopted home has taught him to compartmentalize, avoiding some aspects in favor of those that make him happy. Looking back at Syria has only confirmed his affinity for his country. He said he was not ready to leave it behind, despite having not set foot there in six months.
“There’s something totally magical about Damascus. It’s an incredibly rich and authentic city. It’s not invaded by Starbucks,” he said, gesturing to the nearby grande caramel macchiato. Damascus is “not just a city coming out of a museum. It’s very much alive with a heart that beats at a super high rate. KFC can’t compete with any shawarma stand.”
When the popular uprising started, Azmeh was in the process of moving back to Damascus. During frequent stints in Syria he painted his small apartment and performed with the trio he’d been with since adolescence. Five months ago his apartment was looted and, fearing for his own safety, he hasn’t returned since.
“I never really felt like I left,” he said. “I always wanted to be known as a local Syrian artist, not one re-imported from New York.”
Azmeh has reluctantly created a home in New York and formed a new band. It made him feel at once at home and as though he were “cheating” on his Syrian ensemble. As he goes about his life and music career in New York, he worries about other talented Syrians who will likely never return home.
“People establish roots easily in times like these elsewhere,” he observed. “It becomes harder and harder to come back. A lot of people have lost everything. I can’t justify saying, ‘Let’s go home.’ The idea of home has also changed.”
Until he does return, he’s taking inspiration from “seeing all these brave men and women back home.”
Armed with only a clarinet, and from thousands of miles away, he asked, “Can I change the world? Maybe not. Maybe I can inspire one person.”
He’s determined to remain optimistic about Syria’s future but he doesn’t expect any quick resolution to the conflict.
“I believe history moves only forward,” he said, “with lots of bumps on the way. A secular democratic state is going to happen. But we’re not going to get it immediately.
“The player should play. The actor should act. The doctor should heal. The poet should write. We can’t just sit and wait.”