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SCOTT SIMON, host:

After several years of strained relations between Syria and the United States, two senior U.S. officials met today with the Syrian foreign minister. This is part of an effort by the Obama administration to try to improve ties between the two countries. But here in the U.S., there's another delegation bringing the arts of that region to America. This month, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is hosting a three-week festival called "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab world."

(Soundbite of the music)

SIMON: Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh is one of the many artists performing at the festival. He has played with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra and has released three albums with his ensemble group, Hewar. He stopped by our studio earlier this week. Mr. Azmeh, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. KINAN AZMEH (Syrian Clarinetist): Thank you very much.

SIMON: As I understand it, you spend a good deal of time in the United States as it is.

Mr. AZMEH: For the past eight years, I've been traveling, actually, back and forth between New York and Damascus. Thus, I travel almost every month. I go to Damascus for concerts or for workshops. But my main base now is in New York. I'm finishing my doctorate now at CUNY's University of New York.

SIMON: So, what does this mean to you, a new approach?

Mr. AZMEH: Well.

SIMON: Of course, you musicians has been talking for a long time.

Mr. AZMEH: I tell you what it is. Basically, I mean you mentioned the name of my band. My band is Hewar. Hewar means dialogue in English. That's the Arabic word for dialogue. It's a bit too late. I think dialogue, in terms of the concept itself, should never, never be left out. Like you should have dialogue with all the people - like your enemies, your friends, whatever. When it comes to my musical world, the whole idea of dialogue and being open to the other is actually what shapes my musical journey. I maneuver between Arabic music and jazz and classical, and I think equally - I feel that I am equally connected to all these different cultures. So dialogue is a concept I live with — live by, in a way. Especially, making my music.

SIMON: How did you wind up playing the clarinet?

Mr. AZMEH: It's a little, little funny story. I started learning the violin when I was 5. Then I had a hard time holding my bow in my right hand, I'm extremely left-handed. And my dad, being curious by nature - you know, back in the days, Encyclopedia Britannica had the system where you can send them questions and they'll reply, with like, articles. So he told them: My son is 5, he is trying to learn the violin, he is having really miserable time trying to learn. What do you suggest? So they sent him this 50-pages article about - he can do that, he can do this, including the option that maybe I should be switching the strings of the violin, which means I can never be able to play in an orchestra because my bow would be entering my neighbor's eye in a way.

SIMON: Oh right.

Mr. AZMEH: So, the other option was to switch to an even-handed instrument. And in Damascus - this was in the early 80s - the only instrument that fit that criteria were clarinet and piano. And I thought well, I would like to be able o travel with my instrument, and that was the clarinet.

(Soundbite of clarinet)

SIMON: I want to ask you about some music you've performed. You have an album, "Nine Days of Solitude," with your group Hewar. You dedicate this song to airports -to all those who are kept in neon-bright airport backrooms.

(Soundbite of clarinet)

Mr. AZMEH: So, the story of the piece actually happened this way: Every time I travel, in every airport, usually there are two lanes: one for the locals, the citizens, and one for visitors.

(Soundbite of clarinet)

Mr. AZMEH: And every time I land in JFK, because this is where my base is now, when I show my Syrian passport, suddenly I'm sent to a third lane that most people don't know exists. It's in the back of the airport somewhere, where you get questioned and interviewed. Even though I travel very often, as I said, but every time they have to go through the same process. And it's in this room in the back where I meet my friends from Iraq, from Iran, from Sudan, from lots of countries that are stereotyped. Fairly so or not, that's a different-different matter, obviously. And sometimes it gets quite annoying because they keep you for a few hours. So after a few years of doing this, I decided to like, really use my time creatively.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AZMEH: So, I wrote that piece "Airport," and I always dedicate this to all these people, actually, who I meet in these rooms in the back, whether they are officers or people who are actually going through that process. So it's just basically - it's just my artistic objection kind of expression.

(Soundbite of music from "Airport")

SIMON: You have a new album, "Complex Stories, Simple Sounds," and you've agreed to let our listeners have a sneak preview.

Mr. AZMEH: Absolutely.

SIMON: One of the tracks, "Ibn Arabi Postlude," let's listen to it a little bit, if we could.

(Soundbite of song, "Ibn Arabi Postlude")

Mr. AZMEH: Ibn Arabi was a Arabic philosopher from the 10th and 11th century, and he belonged to the school of thought where free expression is actually sacred. The piece is written with having the thought in mind that actually, all free expression is sacred and should be sacred. And it's a piece that actually has a very flexible form, and it's very free. And lots of people can take, really, solos in the piece, where they can just take the piece into a different direction from where I wanted it to go.

(Soundbite of song, "Ibn Arabi Postlude")

Mr. AZMEH: So, it doesn't really have a story, per se, but it's basically - it's what I believe in, in that actually, music should be free.

(Soundbite of song, "Ibn Arabi Postlude")

SIMON: Clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh played with his ensemble this week at Washington's Kennedy Center. It's part of the series "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab world." His new album, done with pianist Dinuk Wijeratne, is "Complex Stories, Simple Sounds." Thank you for being with us.

Mr. AZMEH: Thank you very much, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: You can hear full-length songs by Kinan Azmeh, and watch a video of his performance at the Kennedy Center, at our Web site, nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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