ALBUM REVIEW: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’s Sing Me Home

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.

Sing Me Home

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.”

Yo-Yo Ma

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.”

ALBUM REVIEW: Wild Cities (Francesca Anderegg, violin; Brent Funderburk, piano)

by Brendan Howe

wild citiesAfter Dead Souls
Where O America are you
going in your glorious
automobile, careening
down the highway
toward what crash
in the deep canyon
of the Western Rockies,
or racing the sunset
over the Golden Gate
toward what wild city
jumping with jazz
on the Pacific Ocean! 
-Allen Ginsberg
 

As a sense of disarray and fragmentation mounts in the world of contemporary music, Francesca Anderegg’s Wild Cities delivers a refreshingly optimistic sense of the future, full of adventure and possibility. Anderegg chose the title after reading John Adams’ autobiography, in which the iconic composer reproduced Allen Ginsberg’s words as the epigraph, Beatnik love for the open road blazing through strong and clear. She chose the works of five young American composers, in whom Adams’ minimalism shows significant influence, and who take that minimalist heritage and carry it in their own direction.

francesca aderegg cred dario acosta

Anderegg was fascinated by the way in which all five composers picked up the same musical legacy and drove off into the great unknown, toward those “wild cities” of the future, while maintaining a sense of unity. This unity is reaffirmed through Anderegg’s technically precise yet stirring performance, and by pianist Brent Funderburk’s conscientious accompaniment throughout the album. (Listen along to samples of each track, courtesy of New Focus Recordings)


ryan francis credit umi francisAnderegg and Funderburk open with Ryan Francis’ Remix, a piece that combines elements of various EDM subgenres with classical forms to create a pulsing, hectic relationship between the two instruments. Several times, the violin and piano suddenly shift into much brighter, more expansive landscapes, like a driver suddenly breaking through the edge of a shadowy wood and into the rolling, sun-soaked bluffs beyond. Francis notes that the structure of Remix is “labyrinthine”, and while it is based loosely on the opening violin motif, it just as often takes a life of its own and goes where it pleases – as often happens on a good road trip.

13-108 YSM - SOM - Hannah LashAdjoining, by Hannah Lash, comes from a much more tonally structured framework. Less fraught and more conceptual, the violin and piano beautifully weave around each other and gradually build expectations for what is to come into view – only they are never realized, and the violin simply and quietly ascends into the clouds, leaving adjustment and adaptation up to the listener.

clint needham credit chris robinsonFollowing this ascension into the ether comes Clint Needham’s On the Road: Nothing Behind Me, the first of two movements about the eponymous book’s stylized beauty of the nomadic lifestyle. Funderburk opens the piece with four arpeggiated octaves of F sharp, a theme that continues throughout the first movement and links the piece to the waif-like atmosphere left by Anderegg’s violin in Adjoining. The transition is well executed and seamless, as though Needham is reflecting upon the road taken by Lash as his own.

The transition into Needham’s second movement, On the Road: Everything Ahead of Me, however, is intentionally jarring and chaotic. It effectively contrasts its apparent disorder and excited optimism for the mysteries of the future with the nostalgia and hindsight expressed in the first movement.


ted hearneShifting dreamlike into a new scenario, Ted Hearne’s Nobody’s takes Adams’ minimalism to the backroads of Appalachia, incorporating rhythms and double stop fiddle techniques of the region into his work. Anderegg plays the piece selflessly, paying an esteemed homage to the unique patterns and tones described by Hearne and allowing the listener to fully access the music’s human side.

reinaldo moya cred arthur moellerThe violin and piano duo enters finally into Reinaldo Moya’s Imagined Archipelagos. This five-movement piece begins with themes inspired by Mayan culture and moves, by the closing movement, to a rousing Venezuelan joropo played in unaligned, sparring sketches – sometimes obstinate and commanding, other times buoyant and whimsical.

Moya chose the title Imagined Archipelagos because of the idea that although each island appears separate, they are all connected beneath the water. This concept applies not only to Moya’s work, but also to Anderegg’s album as a whole. With Wild Cities, Anderegg has completed an admirable survey of contemporary American composition, revealing these composers’ stylistic influence by Adams with great skill and panache.