The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. runs this year from June 26 to July 7. The festival will celebrate the Silk Road, the East-West trade route that once stretched from Japan to Italy. Festival organizers are working together with the Silk Road Project, a global initiative led by world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. His Silk Road Ensemble has performed around the world, and can now be heard on a recording called Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet.
"Dervish" is an Azerbaizani song featured on Yo-Yo Ma's new recording Silk Road Journeys. The recording grew out of a project Yo-Yo Ma launched in 1998 to celebrate the way different cultures once met and mingled along the Silk Road. Composers and musicians from Asia, Europe and North America were invited to contribute to the recording. The music that came out of their combined efforts reflects both age old national traditions, and unexpected new fusions. Yo-Yo Ma says his own life history sparked his interest in the project.
Yo-Yo Ma: "My parents are from China. My father lived in France for 27 years, actually worked for a while at the Musee Guimet which is the Asian Art Museum there. So I grew up with three cultures. And secondly music. I've played the cello for 40 years. I've been traveling for 25 years. Thirteen of those years have been literally on the road.
And on the road people show you amazing things, precious things, give you gifts that are from the heart that you sometimes can't reciprocate. And so as a musician you're always looking for content and communication. So sometimes the only way I can reciprocate is to pass on what I've learned. From all of this I think came the idea of looking at the shared exchanges and knowledge that many people have had over the past and continue in today's world."
Nancy Beardsley: "And what makes music such an ideal way to dramatize some of the main themes in the history of the Silk Road?"
Yo-Yo Ma: "I think from the material point of view, instruments. You can actually look at the various instruments from the oud, the Middle Eastern and Central Asian oud, its connections to the lute in Europe, its connection to the pipa in China, the biwa in Japan. You can trace those influences: wind instruments, bowed instruments, the commonalities between them.
But I think on a deeper level, it's the ability of music to codify the inner life. And I think that somehow the connections between Persian music and Indian music, Persian music and European music, that hearing the sounds actually can bring peoples' inner lives closer together. I think that can be maybe one of its most potent aspects."
Nancy Beardsley: "How is this captured on your new CD Silk Road Journeys?"
Yo-Yo Ma: "First of all you'll hear just a variety of different types of music and instruments.
One example is 'Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur,' this piece by Kayhan Kalhor, who's an Iranian musician, a Persian musician, and plays the kamancheh, which is an ancestor to the cello, a bowed instrument. And here you have three Persian instruments playing with the tabla, an Indian instrument, and European instruments, violin, violas, cellos, bass. How do you make music together? Well, it turns out that it's a gorgeous piece of music. It's hauntingly beautiful but it's written in a scale that's neither a major nor a minor. The major-minor scales are 40 percent of the Persian scales. There are five scales, and there's one of them we actually have to learn, internalize and feel before we can play that music. But when it comes together, when it actually sounds right, it starts to sing, and it becomes incredibly expressive.
And I think there's a power to performing that music with these instruments. We've done it in Syria, we've done it all over Europe, we've done it in the United States, and it really communicates. It makes people feel somehow connected, emotionally connected."
Nancy Beardsley: "How has working on the Silk Road Project affected your own playing?"
Yo-Yo Ma: "In the same way, after doing a Silk Road Ensemble tour and I go back to playing, let's say, a Bach suite or a Beethoven, I feel so much more open, I feel richer whatever music I'm doing. And I feel that much more connected to the rest of the world."
Nancy Beardsley: "Has the mission of the Silk Road Project changed since the terrorist attacks on September 11?"
Yo-Yo Ma: "Absolutely. Because I think along with political and economic engines there's a cultural engine, and when other engines are not working at full force it's possible for the cultural engine to continue its work in a different time frame. I think we're even more passionate than before and even more devoted to making inner life connections. That's part of building trust, and part of having more creativity in our world."
Yo-Yo Ma says he hopes the Silk Road Project will not only celebrate ancient connections between East and West, but plant the seeds for new cultural and artistic growth around the world.