Horse heads, spike fiddles and elephant plectrums on the road to harmony

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road project is about more than just musical fusion, writes Michael Church. It's about building communities in a troubled world
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The Independent Culture

Even before 11 September, cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road project was going to be one of 2001's more intriguing music stories. Since then, this ambulant event has gained newly urgent significance. And what is it? I caught it on its recent touch-down in Schleswig-Holstein, and these were some of the things I found:

A young Mongolian girl – more used to singing across the Gobi – cutting through massed trombones and timpani, to create an exhilaratingly unearthly sound. An Azerbaijani mugham-singer blending his voice with violins to reflect a stunning musical amalgam. A rock musician from Beijing adding the sound of his sheng mouth-organ to the timbre of a cello.

The original Silk Road ran from the Chinese capital of Chang'an to the Mediterranean city of Tyre, and its traffic was in consumer goods – silks and spices – plus a huge variety of arts and sciences including ceramics, gunpowder and mathematics. In Ma's view, this was in effect a medieval precursor of the internet: a multi-layered conduit for the global dissemination of ideas.

Ma's own Silk Road was directly inspired by his travels. "For 25 years I've been intrigued by the links between trade and culture, and by the way things crop up in unexpected places," he says. "Like the silk fragments in Egyptian tombs. Like the connection between the Japanese biwa and the Arabic 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 medieval plectrum decorated with an elephant, a Persian man, and a Chinese landscape."

He's long been fascinated by the transnational nature of music. Delving recently into the cello's precursors, he found himself propelled towards the kamancheh – the Persian spike-fiddle – and thence to the Chinese erhu, and to the Tuvan horse-head fiddle. "World after world opened up," he says with a manic glint. "And became possible to explore."

That's what Ma is doing, with this collaborative project which girdles the globe. Next year's goal is a massive presence at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington;until then, a long series of events in "partner cities" is planned. The musicological aim is to see how instruments have mutated from country to country, but the artistic aim is a gigantic East-West fusion.

No question about how the West will benefit. Since our home-grown tradition has run into the sand, we have to look beyond our ramparts. Anyone in doubt has only to consider the way Western composers are grasping at new sounds and forms to recharge their creative batteries.

The intended benefits to musicians and audiences on all points East will be of a different sort. As the project's executive director Ted Levin observes, the musics of Central Asia are now menaced by the onslaught of mass-entertainment from the West. He hopes that by holding festivals of newly-commissioned works in their cities, the project's Asian and Western musicians – picked for what he calls their "bi-musicality" – will boost local cultural pride. Traditional music, he says, can be a glue to hold embattled communities together.

Ma constantly reiterates his determination that the project should avoid politics, but he admits that in the present situation that's well-nigh impossible. "But when other engines of dialogue have broken down, that's when culture can really go to work. It's important to go to Kazakhstan, say, and show you're interested in other things than oil. That what you value is the country's cultural life, that you want to hear from Kazakhstan's musicians." Indeed, it's hard to imagine a better riposte to the military and economic weaponry which is currently being unveiled.

Both Levin and Ma are adamant that their goal is more than mere fusion, in the smart Western sense of the word. Says Levin, "We're asking composers to express the melange of influences which have marked their creative lives – which is something composers have always done anyway, like Britten and the gamelan, or Bartok and village fiddlers." Ma talks about biological evolution. "One of the things I've learned is that it's vital to start from the inside each time – each participant must decide where they want to go, because culture can never be static. If you try to arrest an art-form's development, you kill it."

Ma describes his scheme as "what happens when strangers meet", and points out that 3.5 billion people live along the Silk Road's route. "And I think we really have to know each other."

Yo-Yo Ma: Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), Weds. Michael Church's 'The Silk Road Story' will be broadcast on BBC World Service on Wed at 9.05am and 7.05pm

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