It was the kind of moment musicians dream of.
Kinan Azmeh had just debuted a new composition, “The Fence, The Rooftop, and the Distant Sea,” a duo with him on the clarinet and Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, at the Elbphilharmonie, the soaring new concert hall in Hamburg, Germany.
It was the first time he had performed a duet with Ma, probably the most famous classical musician in the world and something of an international goodwill music ambassador.
From there, Azmeh flew to Beirut, Lebanon where he was set to perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.
But when his plane landed, Azmeh switched on his phone and saw that the United States had just banned travel from seven majority Muslim nations into the United States, including Azmeh’s home country of Syria.
Azmeh didn’t know if he would be able to fly home to New York, where he has lived for the past sixteen years, arriving a week before 9/11 in order to study at Juilliard.
“I wanted to be in the lion’s den,” he said earlier this week, sitting in his cramped but comfortable apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where old concert posters and ancient wooden horn instruments line the walls, explaining how he ended up tens of thousands of miles from home. “And then the city sucked me in.”
The apartment is in one of the opening scenes of a The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, a new documentary from Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville.
The film traces how Ma, who achieved the limelight as a seven-year-old cello prodigy, performing for the likes of President Kennedy and Johnny Carson, has spent the last two decades of his life attempting to create a music that blends western classical music with traditional instruments from around the world, like an Indian tabla, or an oud, or an Iranian kamancheh.
Azmeh joined the group five years ago when a few members reached out to him because they needed a clarinetist for an upcoming concert, even though he had met Ma years before when the famed cellist, someone who performed in front of President Kennedy when he was only seven, showed up in the wee morning hours at a Brooklyn loft party.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’ve heard of you,’” Azmeh recounted
“The Manhattan Project of music” one of the players calls it earlier in the film, which traces the stories of a half-dozen of the fifty or so members of the ensemble as they bring long-forgotten ways of playing to a wider audience.
None of the stories highlighted however are quite as compelling as that of Azmeh’s, a Syrian who plays an instrument unknown in traditional Arabic music. He took up the clarinet as a boy in Damascus. He was a left-hander murdering the violin, so his father wrote a note to the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica and asked for suggestions.
“They wrote back actually, and suggested either the piano or the clarinet. But to me music was always about travel, and I knew I couldn’t travel very easily with a keyboard, so I picked up the clarinet.”
That notion of travel though has grown more and more complicated throughout Azmeh’s career.
Moving to New York as the city reeled from the worst terrorist attack on domestic soil, Azmeh suddenly had to go register at the local police station. And every time after that he flew back to New York City—which was often, since he is a touring clarinetist—he was shunted aside at JFK airport for extra questioning.
“It happens every time. Every time. They used to call it ‘random.’ They don’t call it random anymore. It’s okay though. You go into this little room where you see all your friends from Pakistan, from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan. The list expands or shrinks depending on the political moment.”
But as he waited to perform in Beirut, it felt different. Although Azmeh is a green card holder, the situation seemed to be changing every time he looked down at his phone.
Would he be allowed to go back home? Or even board a plane? His parents still lived in Damascus, but that was impossible, not just because of the security situation in Syria, in which a civil war has left close to half a million people dead and forced half of the country to flee, but because Azmeh is an outspoken opponent of the regime he feared that he could be arrested and made an example out of.
While he was in Beirut offers of helped poured in, from fellow musicians, from New Yorkers, from fans. There were offers of places to stay, legal help. He followed along from Beirut as Americans flocked to airports for spontaneous protests.
“It was incredible to watch, this demonstration of values outside of JFK, and then the flip side was what happening at immigration control,” he said. “I am sure many of the people there, the majority probably, weren’t affected by the ban, but they were standing up for values they believe in.”
Azmeh isn’t alone in finding himself suddenly with shaky status in regards to his ability to practice his craft in the United States.
The Oscar-winning Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi for a moment seemed as if he would be unable to attend this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, but once the travel ban was lifted declined to attend in protest.
Hala Kamil, a Syrian refugee and Subject of Oscar-Nominated Documentary, Watani, was likewise briefly barred from coming to the US for the ceremony but did later attend.
Museums around the country have said that the ban would affect their ability to put on exhibitions, and even artists living in the US, like Shahpour Pouyan, an Iranian artist living in New York who has two pieces hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently said that he feared he would be unable to travel to two group shows overseas later this year.
When it became time for Azmeh to return to the States, the travel ban had been lifted. But a new sense of precariousness settled in, one even worse than in the days after 9/11.
His plight was mentioned in a report on the BBC, and once he was home, Azmeh read the comments on the story. “Who cares?” read one. “Someone can be a suicide bomber and a clarinetist.” Worse was the realization that “with a single signature, someone can change your life.”
If comments like that are jolting for anyone, they are entirely antithetical to the spirit of Silk Road, which was designed to show what kinds of creative possibilities there are when cultures collide.
It is the kind of project that it is easy to be cynical about, with its Putamayo-inflected melting pot grab-bag conception of culture.
But it is also hard to not recognize that whatever the Silk Road Ensemble stands for—the free movement of ideas and people across continents—became more important after 9/11, and has grown in even greater importance in these days of border walls and executive orders. They are a group that is scattered all over the world. At a moment they could become an impossibility.
Although the group insists that what they do is apolitical, that their project began before this era of terrorism fears and travel bans, it is hard not to notice a statement slip through every now again.
At an event to promote the movie at Grand Central Station earlier this week, a half-dozen of the musicians gathered to play a couple of songs for the press, among them a Mexican march and Syrian wedding tune that Azmeh arranged.
Afterwards, as members of the press played with an interactive computer game that allowed them to stand on an instrument from the ensemble to hear it played, Azmeh, between interviews with dozens of outlets, said he was disappointed with how the morning had turned out. He had hoped they would play in the middle of the station, one of the busiest in the world, not stuck behind rope for members of the media. Would commuters stop and listen, or would they rush through on their way to work? Even though he was fairly certain it would be the former, he wanted to test it out.
“That’s the real challenge. Can you keep an audience and hold an audience in a place like this? That’s what I thought this would be.”
No matter. New business called. Although Azmeh just got back from Hamburg and Beirut, he is leaving again soon for Berlin and Brussels and a few more shows in Hamburg, a tour that will take him out of the country for most of the month of the March and that concludes with a Silk Road Ensemble concert in Abu Dhabi. It is likely he could find himself stranded again.
“If I leave the US, I don’t know what is going to happen. Right now I know I can come back. But what happens next week. This is in the minds of everybody. How do you deal with that? My decision is I am going to continue doing what I am doing, and you know what, I am going to deal with it when whatever happens next happens. If I am stopped from coming home I will have to think about what to do next.”
“I try to put things into perspective,” Azmeh added. “Yes, I managed to come back, yes, but there are so many families whose lives have been shattered.
“You realize you are not alone in this. This little story of mine, I put it in the perspective of what many people are going through. Think of all the Syrians of the last six years who were not only barred from going home but they lost their families and their homes. When I think of what happens to me it is nothing in comparison. That gives me some strength. This is only a tiny piece of a much bigger puzzle.”
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble premieres on HBO on March 6 at 8 PM.