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.

The musicians say the project has helped them find similarities between musical cultures. When Das began improvising with Kayhan Kalhor, one of Iran’s best-known players of the kamancheh, a kind of fiddle, he found an unexpected kinship between their instruments. “It didn’t matter that he was performing a Persian mode and I an Indian raga,” Das said. “Playing with Kayhan for the first time felt like playing with a long-lost cousin.” Wu Man, who plays the pipa, a Chinese lute, says that audiences also engage with new musical traditions by finding parallels with their own. “Most audiences in the United States have never seen the pipa or even heard of it,” says Wu Man. “But when I’m traveling in Kentucky or Hawaii, people come to me after concerts and say, “That sounds like a banjo or a ukulele.”

Still, there are many challenges that that come with being such a multi-cultural, multi-lingual group. Apart from the logistics of finding translators for many of their endeavors, the musicians also come together with very different opinions and perspectives, which has led to disagreements ranging from which pieces of music to perform to how the project should evolve over the next decade. One way they have dealt with this is by establishing a rotating leadership council that sets the organization’s artistic direction. They are also selective about who they include in the group. “There are many musicians out there who are great artists but who are not flexible,” Cords said. “Flexibility and curiosity are important ingredients for people who end up playing with the ensemble.”

Ma hopes the project can provide a framework for how intercultural understanding and empathy can be forged even outside the realm of musical collaboration. “We are trying to give ourselves and other people the mechanisms to find comfort when faced with the new and the different,” Ma said. “We are trying to collapse distances between people and cultures.” Many members say being a part of the ensemble has shaped their perception of geography. As Das explains, “If there is an earthquake in Azerbaijan, I won’t sleep because Azerbaijan is not a tiny dot on a map—it is where someone who is like family to me lives. Or when one of us becomes a father or mother or grandfather in another part of the world, I am celebrating in Delhi.”

For musicians, much of life is spent on the road, performing in far-flung corners of the globe. They are thus uniquely positioned to take in the diversity of ideologies that people uphold as truth. But on a daily basis, they also see how music breaks boundaries. In the midst of political discord, the musicians within the Silk Road Project see an opportunity to foster other kinds of cross-cultural encounters. “Political power is unbelievably strong,” Ma said. “But cultural power is a different kind of strength.” 

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