Accessibility links

East/West: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Bridges Cultures Along Silk Road

  • Nikola Krastev

A new artistic effort known as the Silk Road Project recently launched its festival program with concerts in northern Germany. The tour will continue to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, the U.S., and Japan by year's end. The artistic director of the project -- renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma -- says its aim is to bring together Eastern and Western musical traditions through a revival of different types of music found along the original Silk Road through Central Asia. Yo-Yo Ma spoke about the project with RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev.

New York, 27 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has called the ancient Silk Road "the original Internet" because of its function linking societies East and West, both culturally and economically.

The world-famous cellist now wants to use the musical traditions of the Silk Road -- which in the Middle Ages extended from Italy through Central Asia to China -- as a modern way to link cultures.

Ma -- whose recent accomplishments include an Academy Award for his cello solos on the soundtrack for the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" -- told RFE/RL in a recent interview from northern Germany (24 August) that his Silk Road Project is an experiment in bridging traditions that may not appear connected.

Ma says the idea for the project came during a trip to Jordan three years ago, when he says he became fascinated by the passion of young Jordanians for music outside their culture. Ma followed through and established the project with the help of noted author and musician Theodore Levin, now the executive director of the project, and with the initial support of the record label Sony Classical.

The cellist has brought together a group of young musicians from Asia, the Middle East, and the United States to form the Silk Road Ensemble. Composers and musicians from different parts of the Caucasus and Asia also have joined in. Among them are Vache Sharafyan of Armenia; Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and Javanshir Guliev of Azerbaijan; Tolib-hon Shahidi and Latif-Zadehb Alisher of Tajikistan; Mustafa Bafoyev and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky of Uzbekistan; and Kayhan Kalhor of Iran.

Kalhor is a recognized virtuoso of the kamancheh or "spike fiddle," a traditional bowed stringed instrument from Iran:

The musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble perform newly commissioned works on both Eastern and Western instruments, and traditional music on instruments from their own lands. Until now, the project has consisted mainly of seminars, fund-raising and public relations work, as well as some New York-based performances.

Ma told RFE/RL about the specific goals of the project, now that the ensemble is performing on the road:

"What we've been trying to do over the last two and a half years is to find great musicians and great composers from Iran, from Mongolia, from Azerbaijan, from Turkey, from Armenia, from Korea, from Japan, from China. And through fieldwork -- ethno-musicological work -- through composers traveling, to talk to people, collecting tapes and then commissioning them, then finding musicians and then playing them [the works]. So that we are celebrating local traditions and people who know traditions, but [who] also are interested in working and traveling in our contemporary society."

In addition to the kamancheh, instruments in the project that are new to most Western audiences include the pipa and the sheng. The pipa is a stringed instrument that resembles a lute. The sheng is an ancient wind instrument that is also known as a Chinese mouth organ. It is a horn with pipes that looks like a hand-held organ. Metal reeds vibrate as air passes through them.

Both instruments are featured in a work commissioned from Zhao Jiping, the Chinese composer best known in the West for his movie scores for the films "Farewell, My Concubine" and "Raise the Red Lantern."

In previous statements, cellist Yo-Yo Ma has emphasized the importance of the Silk Road Project not only as a concert experience but as a common resource for artistic, cultural, and educational programs. By examining the cultural mosaic of the Silk Road, Ma says that the project seeks to illuminate the heritages of its countries and identify the voices that represent these traditions today.

Ma says that, throughout history, the innate curiosity of people has always made it possible for strangers to meet:

"We're here with Alim Karimov, who's one of the great mugam singers of Azerbaijan. And, as you know, mugam singing is the classical music of Azerbaijan. And we have had Mongolian long-song singers, musicians from China, and also Persian musicians. And what we really tried to say at the press conference a couple of days ago is that one of the big themes of the Silk Road Project is really what happens when strangers meet."

Ma also stresses the importance of trust in human and cultural exchanges:

"If you don't have a trust factor, you can have an invasion. And if you have some kind of a trust factor -- people decide things quite quickly, within seven seconds of meeting one another -- you could have, if you trust somebody, you could start an exchange. And what we try to do at the Silk Road Project is to have two priorities, which is creativity and learning."

The project is designed, Ma says, to illuminate the historical contributions of the Silk Road, to support innovative collaborations among artists from Asia, Europe, and North America, and to explore classical music within a broader global context.

Comparing Eastern and Western traditions, Yo-Yo Ma tells RFE/RL about the impact of different cultures interacting:

"It's the same way if you mix [Bela] Bartok and [Zoltan] Kodaly, because suddenly you have an eastern Hungarian tradition, which has very close links to Turkish traditions. And Turkish folk traditions can go all the way through Central Asia to Japan. You see the fire rituals, the Zoroastrian rituals, for example, now going to a slightly different field, from Kazakhstan that are still practiced in a Buddhist temple, the Todai-ji Temple in Nara in Japan."

Serving as a strong written guide to the Silk Road Project is a book by Theodore Levin, the project's executive director, titled "The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia." It was published by Indiana University Press in 1996 and focuses on the ancient musical traditions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It includes maps, an extensive glossary, and a CD.

The first CD by the Silk Road Ensemble itself is due to be released this winter.

(For more information, see the website at