Gig at the end of the earth: The brilliant cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road-inspired Prom has been 10 well-travelled years in the making

The Silk Road faded away centuries ago. But cellist Yo-Yo Ma is trading in new treasures along this fabled highway: the wonderful and hidden music of Central Asia. Michael Church anticipates a Prom with a difference

Listen to a violin, and you could be anywhere. But when you hear the strains of a Chinese erhu fiddle, you know exactly where you should be: music can wonderfully convey the spirit of a place. But where are we here? A young Mongolian girl, whose voice has been trained to carry across the Gobi desert, cuts unamplified through massed trombones and timpani to create an exhilarating and unearthly sound; a Sufi praise-singer blends his sound with that of the cello; a musician from Beijing adds the ice-pure notes of his sheng mouth organ to the drumming of a tabla and the caress of Western strings.

The answer is the Silk Road Project, which is about to play a Prom in celebration of 10 years of global hot-gospelling, though the gospel in question is a strictly musical one. It's the brainchild of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has always been a trailblazer: after jamming with Appalachian fiddlers and Kalahari bushmen, and co-founding the West-Eastern Divan youth orchestra with Daniel Barenboim, he has hit an unexpected bull's-eye with this project in Central Asia.

Seven centuries ago, thanks to its position as the focus of world trade, this part of the world – consisting of all the countries bounded to the north by Kazakhstan and to the south by Afghanistan – was also the focus of a major civilisation. When new sea routes made the Silk Road redundant, Central Asia became a backwater, and remained so until our recent geopolitical panics shoved it brutally back into the limelight. But for most people, apart from oil-men and CIA strategists, it's still largely an enigma. (The date of this Prom – 11 September – has a suitably symbolic significance.)

Yo-Yo Ma regards the old Silk Road as the internet of antiquity, the global network of its day. From the Chinese capital of Chang'an to the Mediterranean city of Tyre, arts and sciences were exported alongside food and clothing: thus were transmitted the secrets of ceramics and lacquer-work, as well as gunpowder, mathematics, the magnetic compass and the printing press – not to mention musical forms and instruments. In Ma's Silk Road Project, the trade is exclusively in music, but his musical map fits the mercantile Silk Road perfectly.

This project was inspired by his travels, he explained while preparing in 2002 for his first Asian foray. "For decades I'd been intrigued by the links between trade and culture, and by the way things crop up in unexpected places. Like the silk fragments in Egyptian tombs. Like the connection between the Japanese biwa lute and the Middle-Eastern oud. Like the red stones – of a kind only found in East Africa – which are set into the back of a biwa found in the Japanese imperial city of Nara. Like the Oriental mandala with the signs of the zodiac. Like the medieval plectrum decorated with an elephant, a Persian man, and a Chinese landscape." Following the development of his own instrument's precursors propelled Ma towards the Persian spike-fiddle, the Tuvan horse-head fiddle, and the Chinese erhu. "World after world opened up, and became possible to explore."

The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, Lincoln Centre, New York, 9 June 2009

His search for like-minded colleagues led him to team up with the charismatic American ethnomusicologist Ted Levin, and with the Aga Khan Development Network, whose conservation projects already stretched from one end of the Muslim world to the other. Levin, who has spent decades tramping Central Asia in search of the region's indigenous musics, and whose books have been the first to explain their richness to the West, had his own epiphany. "I went to Israel to search for my spiritual roots," he says, "but wandering round east Jerusalem I chanced to hear the muezzin – that finely etched, highly embellished cry to God. Hearing that sound changed my life. It started me on a journey that's still moving eastward."

At Ma's request, Levin set about finding musicians and composers in China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, to see how they might collaborate. The problem, he says, was not a shortage of talent, but the conservatoires' insistence that he only consider their star students. "I had to explain that I didn't just want technical brilliance, I wanted musicians who could be flexible, who were natural collaborators." For Ma, the key quality was what he calls "bi-musicality": the Western musicians he has brought in as counterweights are alert to every nuance of these unfamiliar musics.

The project's first coming-together in Schleswig-Holstein was a memorable confluence of talents, of which several were clearly marked for future stardom, most notably the Azerbaijani praise-singer Alim Qasimov. The Chinese pipa player Wu Man – who would later number Ryuichi Sakamoto, the film-maker Ang Lee and Bill Clinton among her fans – showed what sonic miracles could be achieved with 10 fingernails and four strings stretched over a shallow rosewood box. Meanwhile, the Iranian spike-fiddler Kayhan Kalhor, who now heads his own ensemble in New York, entranced the gathering with a lyrical piece called "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur". Next month's Prom will see a new variant of this work, while Wu Man's virtuoso show-piece "Ambushed on All Sides" is being expanded for the full ensemble.

Joining the ensemble on their Central Asian tour in 2003 – under armed guard (this being at the height of the Bush-Blair "war on terror") – I witnessed some unforgettable moments, most notably at a civic reception in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. From among the dark-suited throng, a wild-looking figure suddenly appeared, with a face as though carved in oak. He mused intently, took some deep breaths, rolled his eyes until only the whites were visible, then launched into song. Unpitched at first – just groans, shrieks and hisses – it turned into an ecstatic chant which he amplified with gestures. The Epic of Manas is Kyrgyzstan's answer to The Iliad – though 20 times longer – and Rysbek Jumabaev is what's known as a Manaschi, a master-reciter of this work. This national creation-myth swept on, his trance got wilder, until he came back to reality. This was the first time Jumabaev had been noticed outside his own community: he has since made a career in the West, with his extraordinary vocal art being put on disc.

Other musics that have surfaced during the ensemble's travels are no less exotic. The Kazakh two-string lute and its three-string Kyrgyz variant are used to evoke a plethora of natural sounds – above all the drumming of horses' hooves – with zithers, jew's harps, and flutes enriching the effect. Village shamans traditionally used the horsehair fiddle to weave spells and cast out demons, but this instrument became almost extinct during the Soviet rule, with shamans being driven underground – and sometimes executed – for alleged political subversiveness. Stalin and his successors aimed to erase the ethnic diversity of the entire region – the 'Stans are arbitrary geo-political constructs which don't correspond to cultural realities – so what Yo-Yo Ma, Ted Levin, and the Aga Khan Trust are doing is helping recreate those realities. Some master-musicians – such as Zainidin Imanaliev in Kyrgyzstan – have been helped to set up their own schools to pass on their art; others – such as the Tengir-Too ensemble, with whom Jumabaev performs – are resuscitating defunct instruments. Traditionally, music had been the glue which holds these communities together.

So who needs whom most, in this exchange between East and West? "We all need each other," replies Ma. "We're all enriched by this process. I now find myself playing Baroque music in new ways." Indeed, there's no question about how the West will benefit, given that its home-grown classical tradition has run into the sand. But what Ma perceives underlying all these discoveries and fusions is a truly radical idea: that there is a single "world classical music" into which musicians, from every quarter of the globe, can tap.

In conclusion, he observes that hundreds of millions of people live along the Silk Road's route, "and it's time we and they got to know each other". His motto for his project – enshrined as the title of the first of its CDs – is "What happens when strangers meet". Many strangers have met during the project's touch-downs in America, Europe and across Asia, and many more will meet in the touch-downs to come. Right now, the world could do with a thousand more projects like this.

The Silk Road Project is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on 11 Sept at 10.15pm. Levin's 'Where Rivers and Mountains Sing' is published by Indiana University Press.

The making of a Manaschi

"My story begins when a celebrated Manaschi came to my house when I was four," says Rysbek Jumabaev (right). "I was frightened of him, but I wanted to be like him, so he took me on his knee and blessed me. When I was eight, he started appearing to me in dreams, and I realised I was destined to join him. But the work is a gift from God – people aren't taught in a formal sense. Then I started having stomach aches – I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I went to doctors and they gave me drugs, but nothing helped. Finally, I went to a clairvoyant and asked why I had fallen into this state. He told me I had become ill because I had stopped reciting the Manas epic. He told me to visit a mazar [shrine], slaughter a sheep, spend the night there, and rededicate myself. I took people with me, and we were woken in the middle of the night by a sound of rushing air, which we took as a sign that God was visiting us." And the rest, he beams, is history. MC

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