by Maggie Molloy
In light of recent tragedy and political turmoil around the world, we need music now more than ever—not as a distraction or an escape, but as a gateway toward experiencing our shared humanity. We need music to open our hearts, our ears, and our minds. We need music to connect us in ways which transcend language, religion, tradition, and geography.
That’s the idea behind Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a global music collective comprised of performers and composers from over 20 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.
With such an array of distinct cultures and musical voices present in their collective, the music of the Silk Road Ensemble is at once contemporary and ancient, familiar and foreign, traditional and innovative. The group makes culturally conscious music, drawing upon instruments, ideas, and traditions from around the world to create music that is reflective of our 21st century global society.
Their new album Sing Me Home is a musical culmination of this ethos. Silk Road members each selected a musical work of personal significance to them, then invited guest musicians from different cultural and musical backgrounds to collaborate with the ensemble on each piece.
The result is an album which travels fearlessly from the folk melodies of Macedonia to the traditional textiles of Mali, from the fiddle ditties of Ireland to the harvest songs of Galicia, and from the taiko tunes of Japan to the sitar suites of India.
“When you listen to the album you’ll hear how different our homes are,” Yo-Yo Ma said. “For us, this is one of the great pleasures of Silk Road: we celebrate difference; we cultivate curiosity in our exploration and generosity in our sharing. In our home, something completely unfamiliar presents a precious opportunity to build something new.”
Released as a companion album to the documentary film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the album stands confidently on its own as a glimpse into the music and personal memories that most inspire the individual artists of the ensemble.
The journey begins with Chinese pipa player and composer Wu Man’s piece “Green (Vincent’s Tune).” Eastern folk melodies come alive through an orchestra of Chinese wind instruments, Western strings, Kamancheh (an Iranian bowed string instrument), assorted percussion, and, of course, the visceral Tuvan throat singing of the Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth.
Violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen’s contributions to the album include two imaginative arrangements of Western folk tunes: the Irish “O’Neill’s Cavalry March,” featuring Martin Hayes on the fiddle, and the American “Little Birdie,” featuring vocals by Sarah Jarosz. Each arrangement expands the timbral and harmonic palette of Western folk music by incorporating Eastern instruments like the pipa (a four-string Chinese string instrument), the shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), and the sheng (a Chinese free reed instrument).
What follows is a new arrangement of the traditional Malian tune “Ichichila,” for which the ensemble enlists the talents of Toumani Diabaté on kora (a West African string instrument) and Balla Kouyaté on balafon (an African wooden xylophone). Traditionally sung by the Taureg people while dyeing textiles in indigo pits, the song’s colorful, upbeat cadence comes from the rhythm of the textiles being plunged in and out of the dye with long sticks.
Balkan vocalists Black Sea Hotel lend their voices to an arrangement of the traditional Macedonian folk song “Sadila Jana,” while Japanese percussion instruments take center stage in a contemporary arrangement of the Japanese “Shingashi Song.” Indian raga is the inspiration for the organic and free-flowing “Madhoushi,” featuring Shujaat Khan on sitar and vocals, and “Wedding” features a vibrant marriage of clarinet, oud (a Middle Eastern string instrument), and wordless vocals in a heartfelt tribute to the millions of Syrians who have fled to find new homes in recent years.
But perhaps no other song captures the spirit of the album more than “Going Home,” a piece that has passed through countless composers’ capable hands in the past century. Originally composed as part of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, it was later arranged as a song with lyrics by his pupil William Arms Fisher. On this album, we find it rearranged and translated into Chinese in a twinkling string rendition featuring vocals by Abigail Washburn.
Jumping from China to Spain, the work is followed by a Galician harvest chant. Davide Salvado lends his voice for a new arrangement of a traditional Galician work song titled “Cabaliño,” his voice slow and steady above a bed of lively strings and warbling accordion.
Rhiannon Giddens’ gypsy jazz-infused vocals sparkle atop a tangle of accordion, Klezmer clarinet, and yangqin (a Chinese hammered dulcimer) in an arrangement of the “St. James Infirmary Blues,” while Bill Frisell’s soulful guitar solos shine in “If You Shall Return…,” a Kojiro Umezaki original which takes its inspiration from Bhatiali boat songs.
The album comes to a close with Rob Mathes’s arrangement of the jazz standard “Heart and Soul,” featuring vocalists Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter. The song plays like a smile: it’s got all the waltz and charm of 1930s New York jazz, but with more global instrumentation.
Because in the end, that’s what the album is really about: bringing together an entire world of sound, listening to one another with open hearts and open minds, and ultimately, creating harmony and understanding in a world that is too often divided.
“All around the world, people constantly meet the unfamiliar through change,” Yo-Yo Ma said. “Rapid or dramatic change can feel threatening, tempting us to build walls to defend against the unknown. At Silk Road we build bridges. In the face of change and difference, we find ways to integrate and synthesize, to forge relationships, and to create joy and meaning.”