the silk road

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There are phrases so evocative, they summon entire worlds and journeys, real or imagined . Silk Road is such a name.  Conjuring visions of caravans passing across timeless deserts and oasis towns; of camels laden with bales of multicolored silks and sumptuous brocades, of handsome turbanned men with smoldering eyes carrying rubies and pearls, clusters of golden dates, saffron powder and pistachio nuts from Persia, glass bottles from Egypt, aloes, sandalwood, and all the perfumes of Arabia …  The Silk Road: distance and movement; music and the noise of the crowd…

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The romance of the Silk Road can be traced to Marco Polo.  The Venetian explorer was only 17 years old when he started his travels to China along the ancient Silk Road.  What he saw was beyond anything he could have imagined.  He returned home with many treasures, the most amazing of which were his stories.   “The Man of a Thousand Stories”  describes the route from Baghdad to China, conveying a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for the new world he came across in which “everything is different”. The explorer had a poetic soul; listen how he describes the monsoon:

“I must tell you that it takes a full year to complete the voyage, setting out in winter and returning in summer. For only two winds blow in these seas, one that wafts them out and one that brings them back; and the former blows in winter, the latter in summer.”

As he recounts the crossing of the desert, one wants to have been there, to have listened to him:

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“When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -falling asleep or anything else -he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have seen a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray….Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path.”

 Marco Polo, Travels

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Being the romantic I am, it is therefore no surprise that I would have rushed to see The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo-Ma at Lincoln Center on Monday night. This musical collective comprised of about 60 musicians, composers, arrangers, visual artists and storytellers from various Eurasian cultures has a clearly defined ambition: to preserve the authenticity of their own musical heritage and explore its repercussions on present culture while continuously search for points of contact with classical music.

Performing in many locations along the historic Silk Road, including Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, India, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, the Ensemble uses various instruments from the Silk Road region, including a pipa, a Chinese short-necked plucked lute; a duduk, an Armenian double reed woodwind; a shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute; and a morin khuur, a Mongolian horse head fiddle,  among many others.

The evening began with bamboo flutists sauntering on either side of the audience and a Korean drum on stage, continuing later on with musicians scattered around the performing space, blowing into conch shells. Conch shells…. Our maroons blew into them : the  piercing blast of a blown conch shell summoned runaway slaves…  Other memories flooded me: we would find these curved pink opaline beauties on the sand, and listen to the ocean entire  by approaching one to our ear.  And then the musicians played the Lebanese Arabian Waltz and through the generous exuberance of the music, I was transported back in time … trekking on a camel,  making my way through sand storms in the desert, through ancient cities and places as high as the Great Wall, as infinite as the nine-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine  rooms  hidden in the Forbidden City, as mysterious as the emperors’ tombs…

Throughout the evening, Yo-Yo-Ma, this superb cellist whose talent is matched by his simplicity, was just one of the musicians, mostly prompting other players into the spotlight while the public enjoyed this sublime fusion of jazz, Middle Eastern traditional music, and Western classical music.

Michele Voltaire Marcelin

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