The Musical Group That Plays the Bawu, Jang-Go and Viola

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Why you should care

They’re the best and brightest musicians from all over the world — on the same stage. 

A bluesy singer in a blue dress croons in front of an eight-piece band. An accordion and a cello sigh, back and forth, with melancholy. Then a double bass and a Chinese dulcimer join in for an eight-and-a-half-minute musical extravaganza.

The group: the Silk Road Ensemble. Created in 2000 as a branch of the nonprofit Silkroad by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma (whose 1733 Italian cello is insured for millions), the collective plays live musical collaborations in concert halls all around the world. So far the ensemble has hit 33 countries with more than 300 concerts. Affiliated with Harvard University, the group has recorded six albums and has even been nominated for a Grammy. Its goal? To model cross-cultural collaboration onstage and off and to connect the world through the arts. Check them out at TED 2016, above.

Undoubtedly, Ma is the most recognizable name of the group, which has grown rapidly with dozens of loosely affiliated members. But all the musicians pack a punch as they represent their countries (more than 20 total) or play an exotic instrument. One member, Wu Man, is the world’s leading Chinese pipa player. Another, Kojiro Umezaki, Japanese-Danish, is a world-renowned shakuhachi player (imagine if a flute and a clarinet had a baby). “They’re definitely the cream of the crop from each music culture,” says Reylon Yount, a Chinese dulcimer player who occasionally performs with the Silk Road Ensemble. “These musicians have their own followings and bring audiences together.”

With the Silk Road Ensemble, each performance is unique and unpredictable. According to scholar Andy McGraw, the Silk Road Ensemble puts a premium on improvisation. Unlike many Western traditions, which have set notations, copyright and a composer, many of the Silk Road’s musicians come from oral traditions that preclude the possibility of a finalized artwork. “I think they work well because a lot of people in the organization have a real encyclopedic knowledge of their traditions, and know at a gut level what will go well with what,” McGraw says. Japanese, Chinese, European, Indian, Persian instruments and more all blend together to explode on the stage in a novel experience for the audience members.

Sure, collaborations across cultures have existed for centuries, but some cultural heritages are better known than others. In the U.S., for example, Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music grew in fame because of rock and psychedelic groups like the Beatles. Still, few people could say what a bawu (from China), jang-go (from Korea) and kamancheh (from Iran) are. Or tell you what they sound like. Moreover, they probably haven’t seen them on the same stage before.

“Now that’s the end of my story,” American musician Rhiannon Giddens sings with the Silk Road. “Let’s have another round of booze, and if anyone should ask you, just tell ’em I’ve got the St. James Infirmary blues.” The Chinese dulcimer chimes along with the other instruments to send the piece soaring.

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