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Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble - Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon
Enchantment: Mohini (Enchantment); Oasis; Distant Green Valley; Akhalqalaqi Dance; Echoes of a Lost City; Origins: Mountains are Far Away; Yanzi (Swallow Song); Battle Remembered; Summer in the High Grassland; New Beginnings: Kor Arab; Shikasta (Minstrel’s Song; Night at the Caravanserai; Gallop of a Thousand Horses; Tarang (Currents); Sacred Cloud Music
Yo-Yo Ma (cello), The Silk Road Ensemblerec. 20-26 Sept 2004, Right Track Studios, New York City
SONY SK 93962 [63:33]

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Having recently 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.”

One fascinating 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 sessions.

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.

Battle Remembered 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.

Göran Forsling




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