NEW YORK CITY — The diverse musicality of the Silk Road Ensemble—some hyper-traditional, some simply hybrid—mirrors the endless variety along the ancient Silk Road itself.
Spices, fragrant oils, gems and silk were bought and sold along the 6,500-kilometer trading route that stretched from China to the Mediterranean.
However, cellist and U.N. Peace Ambassador Yo-Yo Ma says cross-cultural exchanges and understanding were the ancient route’s most precious products.
Ma founded the 31-member ensemble, whose members represent 20 countries, to express that spirit of exploration and sharing.
“What we tried to do in music and in culture is look at what do we have in common,” he said.
When Cristina Pato first played the Galician bagpipe as a child, she never dreamed she would travel with it beyond the villages and pastures of rural Spain.
"Being able to share my tradition with Sandeep Das from India, with Koji from Japan, with Kehan from Persia, and finding that there are way more fields that connect all of us than things that in my head were separating us, that to me was a turning point and a really amazingly enlightening experience,” Pato said.
Ma has carefully built trust among ensemble members, each of whom is a virtuoso within his or her own tradition. Yet they easily collaborate and improvise with each other.
“So one person maybe comes up with an idea, and we follow," he said. "And then another person from another tradition, another sector, leads and then we can go that way.”
Indian tabla player Sandeep Das loves finding common ground with his colleagues.
“It’s the joy and the trust that help us do things together that seemingly seem different on the surface, but are definitely inherently one and the same thing,” Das said.
The Silk Road musicians bring that inclusive spirit to settings both intimate and grand, such as at the Shanghai Special Olympics in 2007.
"It’s full participation because, as a philosophy, I think one way we can define any culture is how that society treats its least fortunate citizens," Ma said.
The Tanglewood summer music festival in Massachusetts is the ensemble family's primary residence. The documentary film Live from Tanglewood shows the musicians relaxing, workshopping, and performing as a group, in creative and unusual pairings and as solo artists.
What Ma calls “passion-driven” education is at the heart of the ensemble’s mission. After tours, Silk Road members often stay behind to conduct music classes in locales like China, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Brazil.
In the U.S., Silk Road Ensemble members offer workshops in conservatories and public schools.
Ma believes the arts help strike a balance between self-knowledge and awareness of the larger world.
“I think we want that to sort of be the engine that drives the curiosity," Ma said. "To actually find how many places you can call home, how many ways you can actually make something your own.”