reviewed the 2 CD sampler set “The Essential Yo-Yo Ma” I was
to some extent prepared when I started listening to this disc.
That sampler had a couple of tracks with this group, but those
tracks were obviously chosen to suit Westernized ears and didn’t
give full rein to the manifoldness of these Silk Road Journeys.
Very few recordings
have made such an impact, made me listen with fresh eardrums,
so to speak. This is not going to be a review in the traditional
sense of the word; it will, possibly, be a view – a view of
something beyond borders. Music that belongs nowhere – and everywhere.
Hang on if you feel adventurous, stop reading if different music
is not your cup of tea.
So what is the Silk
Road Ensemble? Yo-Yo Ma writes in his preface to the booklet
text: “Five years ago, the Silk Road Ensemble and I began as
strangers meeting for the first time in the idyllic grounds
of the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts. We
had come together from places as far away as Mongolia, China,
Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Armenia, Turkey, India,
Japan and Korea. Many of us did not play the same scales or
speak the same language. Some read music, while others did not.
Rather than drawing us apart, these differences had the opposite
effect of deepening our curiosity to learn more about each other.
- - - Over time, we began to learn each other’s music. Tentatively
at first, we shared simple melodies with one another. Then we
began the more difficult lessons of learning a seemingly infinite
set of modes, scales, and rhythmic patterns. The deeper we went,
the more we discovered how much we did not know, and the bigger
the musical universe became.”
feature is the multitude of instruments, many of which I hadn’t
even heard of, let alone heard. There is a useful glossary of
them in the booklet and also many photos from the recording
Is it difficult
music? No, not difficult, just different. Much of it is soft,
rather slow and meditative but there are also livelier pieces,
some of which utilize a whole battery of percussion instruments.
The first piece, Mohini (Enchantment) starts with a vocal
solo, sung in that tense, plaintive Oriental way, but then the
music develops softly with another solo voice blended into the
ensemble’s fabric. Oasis is a collective improvisation
over some basic rhythms, languid and beautiful. Distant Green
Valley is also a meditation, but about halfway through the
seven-minute composition it becomes more vivid. Akhalqalaqi
is a province in southern Georgia and Armenian duduk virtuoso
Gevorg Dabaghyan heard this folk song, Akhalqalaqi Dance,
while travelling there. Duduk is an Armenian double-reed wind
instrument, here accompanied by cello and djembe, a West African
hand drum. Mr Dabaghyan plays softly and elegantly with beautiful
tone. “To have good sound, you must eat honey – every day!”
he states in the booklet, and Winnie-the-Pooh, sitting next
to me while listening, nodded approvingly. Echoes of a Lost
City is performed by cello and xun, a Chinese ocarina. The
somewhat longer Mountains are Far Away is again so beautiful
that it almost hurts, slow moving and contemplative, until it
is speeded up and becoming quite intense. Yanzi, a lovely
Chinese song about a girl, Swallow, who became separated from
her beloved, is beautifully sung by Wu Tong, whose soft voice
blends so well with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello.
is extremely beautiful, a weightless string melody over a hypnotic
percussion background. Summer in the High Grassland
finds Yo-Yo Ma at his silken-toned best, backed up by percussion.
In some pieces we hear the intense voice of Alim Qasimov, in
Kor Arab singing with almost Spanish flamenco flavour.
Shikasta is an orgy in rhythms, just as Night at the
Caravanserai, which is dance music of the highest order,
after an initial minute of evocative nightly atmosphere.
Gallop of a Thousand Horses, composed by Kayhan Kalhor and
based on Turkmen folk melodies, was commissioned by the Kronos
Quartet and explores the possibilities of the string instruments.
The final track Sacred Cloud Music has Wu Man playing
pipa, a short-necked plucked Chinese lute. When the string quartet
comes in it is almost like a sermon. Deeply fascinating, like
everything on the disc.
Writing this on
New Year’s Eve I must say that a rewarding music year came to
a glorious end with this. I have reviewed many discs this year
that I will return to with pleasure but probably none that made
me capitulate so unreservedly.