Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan

The Silk Road Project is an extraordinary undertaking--founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998 to foster cultural understanding, dialogue and creation in those parts of the Middle East and Asia along the fabled Silk Road trade route.

After fifteen years, it continues along a successful and distinguished path producing remarkable projects of all kinds, including, of course, musical endeavors.  One of the early outcomes of the project was the 2002 double-disc The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan, issued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.  The label's description for the album asks, "What if Marco Polo had owned a tape recorder?" 

There are forty-seven pieces totaling over two hours and twenty-five minutes of spellbinding music from Turkey to Japan, including areas not well-known to many people, including the Central Asian regions of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and others.

It is impossible, really, to select highlights because the music is uniformly good throughout.  Instrumentals and pieces featuring vocals are given a good balance and there are Tuva throat singers, Japanese shakuhachi (flute), Persian musicians, the amazing Chinese pipa master Wu Man, and street performers. 

The first disc is given over to professionals playing the classic music of the several countries featured under the heading "Masters and Traditions," while the second is for "amateurs" in folk settings on the disc titled "Minstrels and Lovers," with the latter having sub-categories of "The Nomadic Sound," "Traditions of Festivity," and "Spiritual Music."

Playing the entire album at one sitting can understandably daunting, particularly if the listener has little or no background in the music of the varied places, but this blogger, having had some experience with Chinese, Japanese, Persian, and Tuvan/Mongolian music, was captivated and listened straight through spellbound by the diversity, beauty and talent represented.

Unfortunately, this set was purchased without the 47-page booklet with extensive notes by Ma, Jean During and Ted Levin, the latter two producers while Ma has served as artistic director of the project since its inception.  Presumably, the liners have plenty of good information about the project, the various countries, the musicians, the instruments and the pieces. 

In any case, The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan is a mightily impressive compendium, easily one of the best music anthologies this listener has heard, and one of the best "world music" recordings, as well.  While it might be too much to digest at one time, its many pleasures can be sampled in small doses and be very effective as a tool for discovering parts of the world little or not known to Americans raised on Western forms of music only.

For those who have sampled "world music" somewhat extensively, this should be an indispensable addition to a collection.

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