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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine November 2008 Issue

Silk Road Journeys by Yo-Yo Ma

Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing EditorVolker Poelzl

Yo-Yo Ma is without doubt among the world’s best known cellists, in part because he has expanded his repertoire beyond classical music to other musical genres such as tango, Brazilian Bossa Nova, movie soundtracks, etc. His eclectic musical body of classical, experimental, international, and popular music work has introduced him to a wider audience. In addition to explorations into the realm of popular music, he is a Chinese American musician who has developed a strong interest in music from Asia. In 1998 he founded the Silk Road Project, a non-profit organization with the goal of introducing Western audiences to the rich musical heritage of Central Asia—especially the countries along the old silk route from China to the Mediterranean. In addition to efforts to preserve, record, and publicize traditional music from Central Asia, the Silk Road Project also promotes collaborative projects among composers and musicians-- resulting in the creation of the Silk Road Ensemble.

The Silk Road Ensemble is a group of about 60 musicians and composers from twenty countries who perform together in different configurations and also make recordings. The focus is on traditional music from the countries along the former Silk Road, but also commissions many new pieces by contemporary composers which are inspired by traditional classical and folkloric music from Central Asia. The result is a very eclectic collection of music–a musical journey that mirrors the trajectory of the old Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean, including music from China, Mongolia, India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kurdistan, Turkey, Japan, and several other countries. The recordings feature traditional classical and folkloric music from Central Asian cultures, but they also transcend these traditions by bringing together such a great diversity of composers, musicians, instruments, and music. For example, listeners will hear the sound of an Indian tabla (drum) in a traditional Chinese song, which is quite untraditional. But the main goal of the Silk Road Project is not only to make traditional music from Central Asian known to a larger audience, but also for musicians from these countries to come together, play, perform, improvise, learn from each other, and have a good time together. Yo-Yo Ma writes on the Silk Road Project website: “Every time I open a newspaper, I am reminded that we live in a world where we can no longer afford not to know our neighbors.”

The most striking quality of the Silk Road Project recordings is the fact that they focus on musical traditions that are largely unknown and unfamiliar to Western audiences. All four CDs produced by the Silk Road Project present quite a musical challenge to Western ears. Listeners are introduced to a variety of musical instruments, rhythms, and sound qualities that they may have never heard and which may take some time to getting used to. A good example is the shrill voice of Mongolian singer Ganbaatar Khongorzul, who performs a traditional long Mongolian  song on the CD “Silk Road Journeys—When Strangers Meet,” accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on a horse-headed fiddle.

For anyone interested in the largely unknown music of Central Asia, listening to the four CDs of the Silk Road Project is a great way to get started:

New Impossibilities (2007)
New Impossibilities includes traditional and new compositions performed by the Silk Road Ensemble and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (2005)
Beyond the Horizon features music of a Japanese TV series about the Silk Road, including compositions by Zhao Jiping, who has composed the soundtracks for several Chinese movies.

Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (2002)
The Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma perform traditional music from countries along the Silk Road, as well as newly commissioned works.

The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan (2002)
The first release of the Silk Road project is a compilation of traditional music along the Silk Road, produced in partnership with the Smithsonian Institute.

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