Various Artists, The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan

Smithsonian Folkways
Released: 2002

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The concept of a "Silk Road" is as much a product of imagination as it is a product of history. From about 200 BCE to 1500 CE, the various Silk Roads served as the primary trade routes between Asia and Europe. However, the term "Silk Road" was coined in the 19th century by the German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen; hence, the concept of a Silk Road (as we know it) only existed after the original Silk Road had been dead for 400 years. This term, moreover, was used to bring up images (for Europeans) of mystical explorations to distant, exciting, and dangerous lands beyond the Ural Mountains. The Silk Road, in short, is a product of 19th century colonialism--a force that, to a large extent, was shaped by cultural attitudes that separated normal, European life from the "alien" and abnormal life lived by people in other parts of the world.

Isn't it interesting, then, that a Chinese musician, Yo-Yo Ma, would oversee the Silk Road Project, a project designed (in the words of its web site) "to illuminate the Silk Road's historical contribution to the diffusion of art and culture, identify current voices that best represent this cultural legacy and support new collaborations among artists." At first glance, it seems like the project, in using the metaphor of the Silk Road, is reaffirming all the Oriental stereotypes--mysterious, drug-induced, romantic images of nomads and despots--that helped shape the European colonial period (that helped make Asia the Orient). Granted, these stereotypes are (here) clouded by the politically correct language of the project's "vision" and by the fact that the whole thing is (largely) a tax write-off for Ford, Siemens, and Sony (the project's sponsors), making the whole thing seem just like another PBS exercise in faux-multiculturalism for the Starbucks crowd. Still, I kept wondering why Yo-Yo Ma would create this blatant exploitation of traditional Asian art.

Ah, but then I heard the music on The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan, and I understood. This is not just some cheap attempt to capitalize on the weird sounds of China and Central Asia. This is not just some attempt to put strange instruments into a Western context. On the contrary, this is out and out traditional music, music that has lasted for thousands of years and hundreds of generations of musicians. This is the real thing.

What you get on this 2-CD collection is traditional music from countries all along the mythical Silk Road, from Turkey and Armenia in the west to Mongolia, China, and Japan in the east, and all the countries in between (especially Iran and the former Soviet Republics like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). The music is played on traditional instruments like the dutar, duduk, tar, shakuhachi, sato, satar, tanbur, and dombra, along with more familiar instruments like the violin. The musicians are all masters in their own countries, and are descendant from a long line of masters stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years. Some of the names, like the Uzbeki Turgun Alimatov, might be familiar to those die-hard world music aficionados, but most artists are unknown to those of us in the west--though, after hearing their work here, you might be encouraged to rush out (as I did) to learn more.

That the music on the collection is taken from so many different countries and cultures suggests a disjointed work, a work whose pieces wouldn't and couldn't fit together. But no--this work is incredibly cohesive, due in large part to the efforts of the album's producers, ethnomusicologists Jean During and Ted Levin. They manage the take the concept of the Silk Road at face value: an economic necessity that, as almost as an afterthought, created a unique blurring of borders, identities, and (in this case) musical heritages. For example, though Iran is quite different from Mongolia, the representative works from these cultures demonstrate their shared similarities, such as the wailing vocal style that seems (to me) to be an imitation of the wailing sound of many stringed instruments like the violin and the morin khuur. Hence, the Mongolian urtyn duu (long song) "The River Herlen" and the Iranian classical song "Mokhalef," while entirely different compositions from entirely different musical cultures, nevertheless share traits that enable us, western listeners, to better appreciate the interchange of cultural traditions and customs that was so much a part of the real Silk Road. During and Levin also smartly organize these two disks, putting the more "classical" composition on disk one and putting the more traditional or "folk" compositions on disk two. Doing this allows us to better appreciate the many sides to the musical cultures of these interesting corners of the world. Finally, During and Levin, because they are experts in the music of these areas, chose the very finest artists to participate in this collection, meaning that what we hear on this recording is the very best music you're likely to hear in this region of the world.

This is a wonderful collection that manages to redeem the whole Silk Road project in my eyes, due largely to the fact that the collection is about the music itself and not about trying to pander to various western audiences. If you are at all interested in listening to what the rest of the world considers music, then get this release, as it will open your ears to new sounds and to musical cultures that (unlike our own) aren't based on the last ten minutes.

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