Radical Rhythms: Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Kim D. Hunter

THE EVER-SHRINKING world, with its myriad political and social crises and conundrums, has resulted in an explosion of opportunities for cultural exploration and exchange.  While we may mourn exportation of the World Wrestling Federation and Mickey D’s, we can celebrate the influx of music from places that have managed to keep it a bit more “real.”

Recently, the visionary virtuoso Chinese American cellist Yo-Yo Ma has given us much reason to celebrate.  From appearances on Sesame Street years ago, to commissioning dance and film to accompany his second complete recording of the Bach’s Cello Suites, he has been working diligently to expand the audience for European classical music and, just as importantly, to expand the scope of the music as well.

Yo-Yo Ma was born in 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris.  At age 4 he began to study the cello with his father and soon came with his family to New York, where he spent most of his formative years.  Later, his principal teacher was Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School.  He sought out a traditional liberal arts education to expand upon his conservatory training, graduating from Harvard University in 1976.

In 1998, Ma’s world travel inspired his curiosity about the exchange and intermingling of ideas and culture.  In 2000, he began gathering musicians who live along the “Silk Road,” the ancient land and sea trade routes between Europe and Asia.

Those musicians, collectively known as Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble, performed at the prestigious Festival at Tanglewood and went on to record a CD, “Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet.”  In addition, Yo-Yo Ma has worked with the Smithsonian Folkways label to release a double CD of over forty tracks of “roots” music, “The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan,” with forty-seven tracks of music from Italy to China.

The ambition and cultural implications of this project are impressive.  A dozen musicians tour with the project representing myriad cultures across Eurasia.  Naturally there is a website: (www.thesilkroadproject.com), where you can get as much history on the route and current project info as you can stand, and a newsletter, all under the auspices of an ever-growing non-profit: The Silk Road Project.

Touring with a dozen people who are all from one place and speak the same language is tough enough.  The logistics of the Silk Road Tour must be mind-boggling.

Musical Portrait of the East

I risk sounding like a salesperson everytime I try to verbalize my impressions of the project.  Taken together, the two Silk Road records (one of them a double CD) comprise the best musical portrait of the East I have ever seen. More exhaustive and representative collections exist, but not contained in three CDs.

There is no bad music here, only works that I like more or less depending on mood. The musicianship, recordings and accompanying text are all exemplary.  The instrumentation and musicians are pictured and given succinct contexts, the tracks arranged in a thoughtful musical sequence.  These are records I would have had to stop myself from overplaying on my old radio program.

Having said all that, it’s not flawless.  There is no Egyptian (though much of the music sound is clearly Arab) or Iraqi music.  I don’t know if there are political reasons behind the latter’s omission.  There is music from Afghanistan, though I am sure it was planned and recorded before 9-11.

Western ears may take a bit of getting used to some of this music.  “Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet,” the CD that features Yo-Yo Ma playing with The Silk Road Ensemble, is a blend of 20th century Western sensibility (some of it even rocks) with classical Eastern scales and instrumentation.

The slow sections of some of the longer pieces reflect the more contemplative nature of Chinese and Indian classic music forms in particular.

Even classical music reviewers in North America and Europe, admirers of Yo-Yo Ma, have had a tough time embracing some of this music.  While they praise the level of musicianship, the word “interesting” pops up where I would use a gushingly positive adjective.

The Smithsonian double-CD “The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan” is more of an ethnomusicologist record, no blending of forms, just the straight dope from places like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and India.

The Smithsonian recordings, some gathered from pre-Silk Road Project compilations, are divided between the “art/ classical” musicians (Masters and Traditions) and the folk forms (Minstrels and Lovers).  The liner notes admit that the lines between the two categories are often blurry, as with the Turkish Alevi song and Kogmen a mournful track from Khakas.

Both of these tracks are on the “folk” CD but are clearly connected to Eastern “art” music.  Only the throat singer’s (super-low multi-tone vocals) technique in the latter distinguishes it from art music.  Even then, Buddhist Monks use throat singing, their rough equivalent of Gregorian chants, and the classical CD features a great track with a throat singer.

An irony of modernity is that the classical forms that used be the province of the wealthy are being more listened to and preserved than the rootsier folk forms.  The latter used to be more popular but now have to compete with J. Lo and the aforementioned World Wrestlers.

Classical Wonders

The classical CD, though, is the more listenable of the two in the Smithsonian package.  The professional, classical musicians have had time to study and polish their art. Standouts include the track by the Iranian Dariush Safvat who plays the santur, a zither-like instrument; the Armenian “Dance of Tamir” with Agha Gevorg Dabaghian on the duduk, the Eastern clarinet; and the Mongolian vocalist Ganbaatar Khongorzul on the track “The River Herlen.”

All the musicians here are masters and the works have stood the tests of time, but even within those high parameters, Safvat plays with great delicacy and lyricism.  Unfortunately, the liner notes tell us, he is one of the last to play the santur in “the old style.”  That is truly a pity. The instrument floats at his command.

The “Dance of Tamir Agha” features a Turkish ensemble with percussion and a second droning duduk.  The melody is repetitive, but the musicians here deliver it with a subtlety that makes it hypnotic rather than monotonous.

Khongorzul has a powerful high voice with great range.  Her control is nothing short of phenomenal.  She delivers the quarter notes (notes that fall between notes on the Western scales) with great precision even as she uses the traditional vibrato.

Her voice is a powerful distillation of Chinese reed instruments.  If you’ve heard the Bulgarian Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) Khongorzul’s work will be familiar and enlightening.

Khongorzul is also part of the Silk Road Ensemble that tours with Yo-Yo Ma. She opens their CD “Silk Road Journeys” with a solo “long song” from her native Mongolia.

The “long” refers to the length of the notes.  Khongorzul’s breathing technique is clearly up to delivering long notes with great gusto.  I suspect that her performance, also featured on the track “The Legend of Herlen,” is a highlight of the live performance.

“Herlen” is as good an amalgam as there is on “Silk Road Journeys,” an album of amalgams.  Both Eastern and Western and ancient and modern in composition, it features tympani and Yo-Yo Ma on the Morin Khuur, a Mongolian upright fiddle with impossible-to-control horse hair strings.  Yo-Yo Ma not only controls them, but also makes the instrument sing like a Mongolian cello.

The hit single from this CD, the one that will accompany the video soon to be in heavy rotation on MTV (yes, I’m kidding), is “Blue Little Flower.”  Chinese rock star and classical musician (no, I’m not kidding) Wu Tong does his best Rod Stewart and gets the band moving.  The track actually gets to an odd sort of funkiness with Saneep Das rocking the tabla (Indian Drum).

Support Needed

Of course, there will be no hit single from this CD. You will probably be able to find cheap used version of it a few months from the time you read this. You may want to consider a getting a new version.  Projects like this need real support, above and beyond the many corporations and foundations that support them.

Even with that support, projects like this and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra only exist if there is a Yo-Yo Ma or Wynton Marsalis to lend his or her star power to it.

This was an obvious labor of love for Yo-Yo Ma. He is present but not dominant.  He is clearly part of an ensemble from which he is learning as much he is giving.  This is an inquiry by someone one with very big ears and spirit.  I wish it could go into heavy rotation on MTV or even get the same level of attention as the Ken Burns PBS “Jazz “documentary.

The artists working to blend cultures here are playing with each other for the first time and playing instruments that may not have been played together and may never be again.  That makes it important for the musicologists.

The rest of us, especially those of us in the United States, can use this project to learn to differentiate places that often get lumped together in one big “Stan” (as in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc.—stan means place).

We can hear where the lines between those places are artificial and transcended by unified streams of music and culture.  We can hear where the lines between them and us can begin to be transcended when we just take the time to let those long and sometimes strange notes sink in.

Ever the optimist, Yo-Yo Ma expresses in liner notes written after 9-11 his belief that listening to and exploring music from outside our cultural experience can help us understand the people who make that music.

This is not a new thought but it has gained more credence with increased global communication, and the various “world music” projects of the past two decades.  We have nothing to lose.

Kim D. Hunter is an editor of Against the Current, a Detroit poet, and cultural activist.  His new collection of poetry is borne on slow knives (Past Tents Press, Detroit).

ATC 99, July-August 2002