Internationally acclaimed cellist Yo Yo Ma has begun a series of music workshops and lectures to promote his Silk Road Project. The project is designed to foster greater understanding between the cultures of the East and the West through music.
The project takes its name from the ancient caravan trade route that linked Europe to Asia. The so-called "Silk Road" extended from Italy across Central Asia to China Some experts say it stretched as far as Japan.
The Silk Road became a symbol for the exchange of ideas, information and material between East and West. Yo Yo Ma calls the Silk Road the "original Internet." Now he wants to use the musical traditions of the Silk Road as a new way to link cultures.
He said, "This is an attempt to say 'Wait a minute. If I know your music and you know my music' or if we could find a way to get inside your soul, if music is an expression of your inner life, then you begin to build a certain kind of trust. You don't just meet in the workplace. You actually can find a rootedness in each other because there is something that you can hold onto culturally."
Mr. Ma says the first real glimmer of the idea for the Silk Road Project came during a trip to the Middle East. He said, "I was asked to give a master class in Amman on the way back to Israel, which I did. I met kids that were so fascinating and so passionate about music that I thought, at that moment I thought we have got to have a Middle Eastern orchestra - which in fact Daniel Baremboim just started a couple of years ago. We had people from Egypt, from Israel, from Syria, from Jordan and Lebanon all get together."
Mr. Ma has brought together a group of young musicians from Asia, the Middle East and the United States to form the Silk Road Ensemble. Many of them, he says, joined the project after hearing about it in the music community. "I think it is word of mouth," he said, "and I think the word was for people who have open ears, open hearts, open minds."
One of those who heard the message was American percussionist Mark Souter. "It is a real pleasure. First of all, it is a real joy to play with Yo Yo Ma. Then also to experience the different cultures and the mixture," he said.
The musicians will perform new works on both eastern and western instruments and traditional music on instruments from their own lands. Music such as Mongolian composer B. Sharav's "Legend of Herlen" tells a story through music.
"The Legend of Herlen" features a vocal technique, the "longsong", which requires singers to take very long breaths to sustain loud and extended sound. Khongozul, one of Mongolia's best-known "longsong" performers, traveled from Mongolia to perform for the Silk Road Ensemble's New York workshop.
The work also features a traditional Mongolian instrument called a morin khuur -- a two-stringed fiddle decorated with a carved wooden head of a horse. The Chinese call it the horse head instrument. In the cross-cultural spirit of the project, cellist Yo Yo Ma learned to play the instrument.
Mr. Ma said, "Actually I had a lesson last year in Amsterdam. There were four Mongolian musicians that we met and asked them to come play at a concert I was playing. They gave me a lesson on the instrument. When we actually heard this piece being rehearsed last summer, I thought I might have a go at it."
Traditional instruments that will be new to most western audiences include the pipa, and the sheng. The pipa resembles a lute. The sheng is a horn with pipes that looks like a handheld organ. Both are featured in a work commissioned from Zhao Jiping, the Chinese composer best known in the West for his movie scores for films such as "Farewell My Concubine" and "Raise the Red Lantern."
The Silk Road Project will also introduce young composers living along the Silk Road today -- composers like San Sar from Mongolia. San Sar says it is very important for musicians from the East and the West to broaden their exposure to each other. "I like Yo Yo Ma's idea," he said. "I think it is first Mongolian musician-composers participating in international music. So we are very happy."
Mr. Ma will continue the concerts and workshops at a number of venues in New York, prior to a two-year series of music festivals that will begin in August. Festivals will take place in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.