Travels on the Silk Road


Yo-Yo Ma.

The concept of “one world” has been co-opted with such frequency in popular culture that the term has been robbed, despite even the brightest of intentions, of its sense of hope and unity.

Perhaps that’s because the notion of a single global community, especially when it comes to music, is usually promoted by a single melody reflecting a single culture – one that is invariably Western in origin.

In other words, it takes more that a multi-cultural group holding hands singing a Bob Marley tune to reflect a truly global presence.

But what if the music went a bit deeper in meshing styles and inspirations? What if musicians from India, Iran, Japan, China, Spain, Switzerland and the United States formed a musical summit? What if a cherished musical ambassador that has spent much of his career establishing a performance and educational forum for that group to thrive within served as leader? Best of all, what if the resulting music sailed so briskly from one continental culture to another that the listener practically needed a compass to track it?

All of those questions have been posed and explored by the music master cellist Yo-Yo Ma has created with the Silk Road Ensemble. Over the course of 13 years, four albums and extensive touring, the group has allowed the sounds and traditions of over 20 countries to mingle. While Ma sees the Silk Road Ensemble as a sort of cultural exchange where musicians continually learn from one another, he feels their music is anything but foreign.

“Certainly in terms of our hopes, we’re all living on one planet,” said Ma, a multiple Grammy winner, United Nations ambassador of peace and artistic director of the Silk Road Project, from which the Silk Road Ensemble emerged in 2000. “So I think anybody on this planet is aware of, or is curious about, what everybody else is doing. In that sense, we’re just trying to present music that is really not so far out of the range of what people hear any place – in the supermarket, in the elevator or whatever. Music you hear in films or on the radio… that comes from everywhere, also. But what we’re trying to do is be specific about where certain influences come in and how they travel. It’s like being able to present large segments of the world on one stage at any one time and sharing what we found musically.”

A willingness to explore is an essential component to the music of the Silk Road Ensemble. Sure, the instrumentation – made up of contrabass, violin, the Persian kamancheh, the Japanese shakuhachi, the Chinese sheng and pipa, the Spanish gaita, piano, the Indian tabla and, of course, cello – is telling of the global intent. But so is the repertoire. For its two Central Kentucky performances this week, the Silk Road Ensemble will journey into the Jewish traditions of John Zorn’s Book of Angels and the East-meets-West colors of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s Playlist for an Extreme Occasion.

“All the people I work with share similar values of truly being collaborative and flexible with either our own ideas with one another to really practice imaginative thinking – to really, on a daily basis, use the imagination muscle,” Ma said. “It is something you can discipline. It is something you can make stronger, so that we can pursue things that are kind of unusual to make innovation and tradition work together.”

While the Silk Road Ensemble might differ dramatically from orchestral and chamber settings that established Ma’s career or the Americana themed projects that solidified his reputation as a musical journeyman, one thing remains consistent – an attitude that turns any musical endeavor before him into an exercise of joy.

“You’ve just pinpointed, I think, probably the most important thing – and that’s attitude, the state of mind and whether or not you can work towards being in a positive state of mind. I think that’s key to everything. And it’s not about being slightly happy or polyanna-ish. It’s more like being present and being grateful.

“Look, I’m like anybody else. I love to complain and whine, so don’t get me wrong. But if I’m going to be someplace and be a guest in someone else’s house, I’m not going to scowl. I want to be appreciative. If someone is doing something nice, of course I’m going to be appreciative.

“So, I’ve been married for 34 years. Of those 34 years, I’ve been gone 22. My kids are 29 and 26. And my wife still talks to me. But basically, I’ve missed out on so many years of my children’s lives growing up and my family life. So I could be really depressed on the road. It could be Death of a Salesman. But it is definitely a switch that you turn on. I would get pretty despondent before leaving. I would get sick to my stomach. It would be awful. But once I leave, the choice has been made. The next stage is attitude. That’s the philosophy that leads you to being appreciative and grateful. I am despondent about not being there for my daughter’s play or my son’s soccer game. But I’m also grateful that I have a job. I’m grateful that someone wants me to hear me play.”

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble perform at 8 p.m. March 20 at EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond ($90, $115) and 7:30 p.m. March 21 at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville ($65-$105). Call (859) 622-7469 or go to for info on the Richmond performance. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to for the Danville concert.

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