Kinan Azmeh of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project Talks HBO Documentary, Syrian War and How Music Can Make a Difference

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO
Members of The Silk Road Ensemble perform during day one of Grand Central Interactive Experience for the HBO Documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble at Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal on Feb. 28, 2017 in New York City. 

Back in 2000, renowned Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma undertook a project that seemed natural at the time, but has since taken on an unexpected political bent: uniting musicians from all over the world in a project called the Silk Road Ensemble. As xenophobia heightened over the millennium, the project has been questioned for both political and cultural reasons, as some felt the spirit of collaboration was diluting the integrity of indigenous music. In early 2017, with musicians from China, Galacia, Japan, Syria and other countries taking part, the project feels more like a radical statement than ever. 

The journey behind the project is told in the documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble, which premieres March 6 on HBO and was previewed at a performance at Vanderbilt Hall in New York’s Grand Central Station last week. Billboard caught up with Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh to talk about the project and his own journey toward it.

Do you live in Syria? 

I’ve been based in New York for the last 16 years but I was always moving back and forth between here and Damascus. But since the uprising [which led to the ongoing civil war], after 2012, I stopped going home. The last concert I gave in Damascus was in April 2011 and after that I said, “It’s not the right time for concerts.” 

Do you have many friends and family who have been affected by the war?

I have lots of people I knew personally -- not close friends -- who were killed, and I know a number of people who were imprisoned and are still imprisoned. But I know many, many, many very good friends who had to leave their homes, and many who lost everything when their homes were bombed and they’ve relocated to Europe or Lebanon or Turkey.

Many people feel powerless these days. What can people do, what can artists do, to make a difference? 

I don’t think there is just one way to do things. Everybody can be proactive, whether it’s about learning why [the civil war in Syria] happened or to get involved. You can always help out, whether it’s [donating] money to refugees around the world -- not only Syrians, I’m talking about humanity at large -- whether it’s supporting artists from those parts of the world, or speaking up on a political level about what you think is right and wrong.

I think raising awareness and funds are equally important for the Syrian cause right now, and reminding people that if they don’t see [the civil war and refugee crisis] on the news, it doesn’t mean it’s no longer happening. The tragedy continues to unfold, for nearly six years now. And in my own work, I wonder what this piece of wood [he holds up his clarinet] can do, can it stop anything? And of course it can’t -- but it might inspire some people. 

How does Music of Strangers advance that?

I think to understand what a piece of music or a film does, you have to watch the whole film to understand what it means, so I can’t do it proper justice. But its heart is that culture matters, culture is not a luxury, and the fact that we get exposed to music and art and cuisine and dance -- it’s not a luxury, it’s something all of humanity should be able to enjoy, and engaging with it makes you a better person.

These are impressions of mine, people always talk about cross-cultural collaboration as if it’s an exception, and I think it should be the norm. One should feel at home in a variety of places, one should be able to speak several languages, and music offers a great background for that. I think closing your doors to anyone who doesn’t look like you or like what you like should be the exception: The more healthy society is one that is open.