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Pauline Lerner

April 27, 2005 at 7:02 AM

I attended a great concert by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. It really expanded my horizons. Beforehand, I wondered whether it would be an interesting study in ethnomusicology or an emotionally moving experience. It was very emotional and beautiful.

The makeup of the Silk Road varies from time to time. This time there were fourteen performers and a variety of instruments. In addition to Yo Yo Ma on cello, there were a bass viol player, two violinists, a violist, a vocalist, and players of instruments from cultures other than European or American. There were several kinds of drums, including the tabla from India; the daf, a Persian drum that looks a bit like the Irish bodhran; and a few others. There was a duduk, a small wooden instrument with double reeds, which Ma described as the soul of Armenian folk music. I saw an instrument that I thought was from India. It was a tar, a plucked instrument akin to the lute, with a long neck and two gourds joined together for the body. Different variants of the tar are played in Iran (Persia); Caucasian countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan; and Central Asian states, including Tajikistan. I also saw a small instrument that looked like a bowed lute, which was held vertically in the lap. This was a kamancheh, an instrument whose use dates back to ancient Persia. I recognized a pipa, a Chinese traditional instrument resembling a large lute, which is also held vertically in the lap and played with finger picks like those used in playing guitar and banjo. Just having all these instruments on stage at the same time was an impressive pancultural event.

The first piece the ensemble played was the Silk Road Suite, comprised of tunes from Iran and China. (Music, like politics, can make strange bedfellows.)

Next was collection of folk songs from Armenia and Azerbaijan which I found very moving. There must have been many Armenians in the audience because there was a lot of applause whenever Ma spoke the word “Armenian.” The musicians were seated on a low couch with huge pillows covered with what appeared to be silk. The scene reminded me of the Arabian Nights. One of the songs was written/collected by an Armenian ethnomusicologist who survived the attempted genocide of Armenians by Turks in 1915. (Three quarters of the Armenian population was killed at that time.) The songs were very poignant. It was obvious that the singer was giving a dramatic narrative but I have no idea what he was saying. At times he had one hand cupped over his ear while he gesticulated almost violently with his other hand, fist clenched, raised over his head. I had the feeling that he was saying something like, “My god, why hast thou forsaken me?” The sound of the violins suggested to me the wind sighing through the trees and a longing to be free. The sound of the duduk was especially evocative and beautiful to me. It lifted me up and away. It is no wonder that it is considered the soul of the Armenian people.

There followed a total change of pace, an improvisational set played on four different non-Western drums, cello, two violins, viola, and string bass. The rhythms, like many in Indian traditional music were amazingly complex. Some were played in six and others in sixteen. It blew my mind that anyone could improvise in six and sixteen, and they did it so well. I felt like getting up from my seat and dancing, as the audience once did at a Paul Simon concert I attended.

Another suite consisted of songs from the gypsies who migrated westward from north central India through Persia, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. They were enslaved and persecuted mercilessly for centuries. The music of the gypsy Diaspora includes strains from many different cultures. The Ensemble played some sweet, wild music from what are now Turkey, Romania, and Hungary. I especially loved the latter two. It sounded to me like gypsy dance music and also like Gershwin jazz as played on the violins.

The whole ensemble got together for an encore in which they jammed on a melody from Turkey. The musician who introduced it said, “We like to think that, if our ancestors had met around a watering hole, they might have sounded like this.” I was so happy that I heard it in my own lifetime.

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