ARTICLE: Silkroad clarinetist and visual artist from Syria collaborate on stage to explore the idea of ‘home’
by Beth Wood
March 25, 2022
Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh vividly remembers watching the 2011 uprising in his homeland on TV from New York. The violent government response left many dead and began a huge exodus of refugees.
“I can’t describe the magnitude of that,” said Azmeh, who became an American citizen last year. “I wasn’t able to write for a year. I continued to play — that’s how I pay my rent. But it severely affected my creative process.”
Azmeh broke his unwanted hiatus by composing a single song, “A Sad Morning, Every Morning,” which he shared with his longtime friend, visual artist Kevork Mourad.
Mourad, an Armenian-Syrian American, animated the song, which can be found on YouTube. “A Sad Morning” was the cornerstone of what became “Home Within,” a unique collaboration of music and visual art created live on stage.
In an unusual format, Azmeh and five other Silkroad musicians will perform as Mourad works at an easel, with his drawings projected on the screen behind them.
“Syria inspired ’Home Within,’ but this project encourages investigating the larger concept of home,” Azmeh said, speaking from a tour stop in Calgary, Canada. “Is home the place you grew up and have memories of? Or is it a place you’d like to contribute to?
“I’ve always said Syria belongs to all of humanity. The events in Ukraine, visually, there are similarities. Tragedies do repeat.”
The Silkroad musicians accompanying Azmeh and Mourad are bassist Shawn Conley, cellist Karen Ouzounian, oud player Issam Rafea, percussionist Shane Shanahan and violinist Layale Chaker. Chaker and Azmeh are married and live in Brooklyn. They bring their 1-year-old son with them when on tour.
Azmeh said it took about a year for he and Mourad to build the piece from the 3-1/2 minute “Sad Morning.” Sections of the piece are improvised.
“I’m a collaborator,” said Azmeh, who on March 15 was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a member of the National Council on the Arts. “Part of it is driven by the clarinet, which is a single-line instrument. If I want to harmonize, I need another player.
“Music is unique in that we can all talk and listen to each other at the same time. I did write the music for this but gave time for the musicians to bring their own stories. Not just the musicians — Kevork will say something. I like to play with the fine line between composer/ improviser.”
Azmeh, who performed in San Diego in 2019 with the string-quartet Brooklyn Rider, acknowledges that “Home Within” springs from a tragic situation.
“It puts me back in deep emotions every time we play it,” he explained. “We hope it will open a window to investigate more. Our job to create art but also to document history.
“I hope someone in the audience is from Ukraine. The concert ends on an optimistic note. I believe we can rebuild something. Art can heal the human soul.”
What is Silkroad?
Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and visual artist Kevork Mourad are longtime members of Silkroad Ensemble, the performing part of Silkroad, which was founded in 1998 by acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He saw the history of the ancient Silk Road trade route linking Asia and Europe as a model for exchanging ideas and innovations.
Silkroad has four music-oriented components: Creation of new music; social impact initiatives, educational partnerships and the Silkroad Ensemble, a diverse collective that performs worldwide.
In 2017, Silkroad Ensemble won the Best World Music album Grammy Award for “Sing Me Home,” which features Azmeh as a clarinetist and composer.
“Silkroad is a collective of communicators who think larger than themselves,” Azmeh said. “Whether they play, dance or do spoken word, they are all thinkers trying to make sense of the world.”
La Jolla Music Society presents Silkroad Ensemble: Home Within
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 3
Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Phone: (858) 459-3728
Wood is a freelance writer