A Yo-Yo Ma Project Brings Together Musicians From Warring Nations

The Silk Road Ensemble hopes to use music as a basis for intercultural understanding.
Yo-Yo Ma, left, performs with two members of the Silk Road Ensemble at Carnegie Hall in 2002. (Osamu Honda/AP)

As one of America’s most renowned classical musicians and a UN peace ambassador, Yo-Yo Ma has traveled the world, performing in front of audiences ranging from presidents to school children. His musical encounters led him to believe in music’s power to diminish ideological differences. Fifteen years ago, he tested this theory by inviting 50 musicians from around the world to Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. for an experiment in intercultural engagement. The outcome was a revelation. Musicians from a spectrum of countries—including nations in conflict with one another—developed kinship through the act of musical collaboration.

Out of this experience, Ma decided to create the Silk Road Project (not to be confused with Silk Road, the recently shuttered online marketplace). Ma’s is an organization that seeks to foster cross-cultural understanding through music, education and cultural entrepreneurship. Bringing together the Galician bagpipe, the Chinese pipa, the Japanese shakuhachi, the Persian kamancheh, the Indian tabla, and many other global sounds ensures that audiences around the world are exposed to instruments and sounds they haven’t heard before.

The Silk Road Project is currently in residence at Harvard University, where it functions as a working laboratory. While at first blush the project seems quixotic, over its 15-year history, it has had a tangible impact in the midst of global crises.

Three months after 9/11, for example, Silk Road Project musicians went to Syria to perform Islamic and Western music at the newly restored Citadel of Aleppo to an audience of leaders from around the Muslim world. Nicholas Cords, a violist within the group, recalls, “It was a time of incredible pain and hurt; nobody knew what the future would hold.” At a time when tensions between nations were high, the concert provided a rare opportunity to bring people together. “There was much sympathy for what America had just been through,” he said. “My sense of what music could accomplish was enlarged.”

In 2004, the Silk Road Project hosted six members of the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra in a workshop in New York. As they rehearsed together, the two groups developed a bond, but it took time. “The Iraqi musicians were understandably on edge,” Cords recalls. “They weren’t sure how the experience was going to unfold. Getting to a place where we felt comfortable together took days.” This encounter was also eye-opening to the Silk Road Project musicians, as they saw the everyday difficulties that Iraqi musicians face. Besides not having the resources to purchase or maintain an instrument, performing in the United States put them at great risk. “Playing in this orchestra was a matter of life and death,” said Cords. “For an Iraqi at that time, carrying a Western violin and playing music from the Western canon was a dangerous prospect.”

In many ways, the Silk Road Project serves as a useful prototype for international cooperation. The musicians must develop a shared vocabulary to compose and perform together—a complicated endeavor since different musical cultures have unique forms of notation. Sandeep Das, who plays an Indian hand-drum called the tabla, said he does not use a notation system at all, which compels the ensemble to find new ways to collaborate. When Ma encouraged Das to compose for the group, he asked Das just to bring his thoughts to the rehearsal. “I brought the melodies and the rhythmic patterns in my mind and it led to my first Silk Road Project composition,” Das said.

Presented by

Elizabeth Segran

is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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