Wealth of nations

The virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma explains to Michael Church how, with his Silk Road Project, he has untapped the musical riches to be found in Central Asia – and he wants everyone to know about it

Friday 10 May 2002 00:00

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Yo-Yo Ma has long been a musical trailblazer – his cello has jammed with Appalachian fiddlers and Kalahari Bushmen, he's co-founded a Middle-Eastern youth orchestra – but he's hit the jackpot with his ambulant project in Central Asia. Seven centuries ago, thanks to its position as the focus of world trade, that part of the world was much better known to the West than it is today. When new sea routes made the Silk Road redundant, Central Asia became a backwater, and remained so until current politics shoved it brutally back into the limelight. Suddenly we're avid for information about this vast, mysterious land.

Yo-Yo Ma regards the old Silk Road as the internet of antiquity. From the ancient 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 lacquerwork, as well as gunpowder, mathematics, the magnetic compass and the printing press – not to mention musical forms and instruments. In Yo-Yo's Silk Road Project, the trade is exclusively in music, but the geographical congruence with its medieval precursor is perfect.

"This idea was inspired by my travels," he explains with breathless excitement. "For 25 years I've 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 [a plucked lute-like instrument] 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."

Then he talks about the fiddle trail from Scandinavia to Scotland and Ireland to Canada to Atlanta to Tennessee: "An unbroken line of aural transfer that was nothing to do with conservatories, but was very exact." Following the development of his own instrument's precursors propelled him towards the Persian spike-fiddle, the Tuvan horse-head fiddle, and the Chinese erhu.

My encounter with these explorations takes place at a country house in Schleswig-Holstein, where Yo-Yo is presiding over a series of concerts with his new collaborators. Specially commissioned works are to be unveiled, and I have to confess that I'm braced for disappointment: that once-magic word "fusion" now covers a host of sins. But in the event, I'm dazzled: Yo-Yo's musical novelties hit the button.

First up is a young "long-song" singer called Khongorzul Ganbaatar: "long' refers to the seemingly endless breaths required to sing it. Khongorzul comes from a family of herders in Mongolia, and her exhilaratingly unearthly sound was originally designed to carry across the wastes of the Gobi desert. After a solo demonstration that leaves everyone stunned, she launches into an orchestral work in which her voice rides over massed timpani and bass trombones. Next comes a beguiling piece in which the Chinese pipa (lute) and sheng (mouth organ) blend with a tabla plus Yo-Yo's cello. And so it goes on: fantasies from Iran and Uzbekistan, from Azerbaijan, and a triple improvisation by flautists from Iran, Azerbaijan and Japan.

The man behind the project is Ted Levin, who has spent the past 25 years tramping Central Asia in search of its indigenous musics, and whose book The Hundred Thousand Fools of God first revealed their richness to an unsuspecting West.

Yo-Yo Ma regards musical evolution in a biological light. "One of the things I've learnt 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." On the other hand, when I ask Levin whether musical traditions ever reach a point where they can't evolve further, I get a careful reply. "A tradition is a set of values circumscribed by constraints of style and form. Becoming a master within that tradition involves following a canonical model – and learning to go beyond it judiciously. A great master will always find a new path. Take Indian music – look how it's progressed over the last 50 years. This is now happening in Javanese music too, as well as in the maqam [mugham] tradition that links everywhere between north Africa and the Uighurs in Xinjiang."

Levin was not only instrumental in finding the right composers, he also spent a year combing the Central Asian conservatoires to find the right players. 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 players who could be flexible and were natural collaborators." For Ma, the key quality is what he calls "bi-musicality": the Western musicians he has brought in as counterweights – like pianist Joel Fan, violinist Colin Jacobsen and percussionist Joseph Gramley – are all alert to every nuance of these unfamiliar musics.

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Pipa queen Wu Man revels in the cross-cultural scale-swapping that emerges in the daily jam sessions. When she left China 15 years ago, her instrument was virtually unknown in the West: after putting it on our map, she's now ready to take its expanded possibilities back home. Sheng virtuoso Wu Tong – whose other life is as leader of a rock band in Beijing – produces a sound that blends equally with Wu Man's pipa and with the accompanying Western strings.

So who needs whom most? "We all need each other," replies Yo-Yo Ma. "We're all going to be 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 as Levin points out, the classical musics of Central Asia are now menaced by the onslaught of mass entertainment from the West, and Western pop tends to kill everything in its path. Levin hopes that by holding festivals in selected Asian cities, local musical pride will get a boost. "And music is traditionally the glue that holds these communities together."

They're trying to steer clear of politics, but as Ma points out: "When other engines of dialogue have broken down, when politics has failed, – as they have done at present – that's the moment when culture can go to work. It's important to go to Kazakhstan, say, and show you're interested in other things besides oil." But they can't avoid getting embroiled: a tour to Uzbekistan had to be cancelled, and won't take place until the political climate permits.

As Yo-Yo Ma observes, 3.5 billion people live along the Silk Road's route, "and it's time we and they got to know each other". His motto for the project is "[What happens] when strangers meet". Some more strangers will be meeting when the project touches down at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC this summer. Yet others will meet when they set out for Asia. Right now, the world could do with a thousand more projects like this.

For information on the projects, visit www.silkroadproject.org. The 'Silk Road Journeys' CD is on Sony SK 89782. A full version of this feature appears in the currrent issue of 'BBC Music Magazine'

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