Under Yo-Yo Ma's direction, the latest effort by the Silk Road Ensemble is a joyous, mesmerizing experience.
Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris to Chinese parents (both of them musicians themselves) and was raised in the United States from the age of seven. You could say that his mission of bringing together cultures through music has always been something of a foregone conclusion, and while he has performed and recorded countless pieces of more “traditional, recognizable” classical music by the likes of Bach, Dvorak, and Schubert, he has always possessed a restless spirit of experimentation and cross-pollination in his musical pursuits.
Case in point: Silkroad is a not-for-profit organization started by Ma nearly 20 years ago as a sort of multicultural artistic exchange. Silkroad birthed the Silk Road Ensemble, a loose collective consisting of as many as 60 musicians, composers, arrangers, visual artists, and storytellers from more than 20 countries. Since 2001, the ensemble has released six albums showcasing the rich musical history of the planet, from North America to Europe to Asia and beyond. Their latest effort, Sing Me Home, is a companion album to the documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.
As indicated in the album’s title, Sing Me Home examines the theme of “home", as many of the ensemble’s members are immigrants, and the collection of original and traditional songs was largely arranged or composed by members of the collective. As the listener is invited into each song, they are guests in another home. These homes stretch out to Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the United States.
While the musical performances are nothing short of impeccable, there is a loose, almost jam session atmosphere, as if the songs were meticulously prepared and then performed giddily around a campfire. The concept of “world music” can sometimes seem akin to doing your homework or eating your vegetables, but here it’s a fun, exciting, vastly interesting and immersive experience.
“Green (Vincent’s Tune)” starts things off with a whirlwind of dense instrumentation and indescribable glee that recalls Roomful of Teeth, an adventurous vocal ensemble that incorporates a blend of styles, including Celtic romps and Tuvan throat singing. It’s the equivalent of doing a cannonball into a melting pot. Like the best eclectic albums, tempos and styles shift seamlessly: on “Little Birdie”, vocalist Sarah Jarosz eloquently pays tribute to Pete Seeger with the accompaniment of Chinese instrumentation, featuring pipa (Chinese lute) and sheng (Chinese mouth organ). You wouldn’t think the combination would work -- until you hear it and wonder why it hasn’t been done this way sooner.
One of the album’s joyous highlights is “Ichichila”, a desert work melody from Mali, created to accompany the task of dyeing indigo. Here, two-time Grammy winner Toumani Diabaté plays the traditional kora and is accompanied by Balla Kouayté on the balafon, an African tuned percussion instrument. The result is a joyous, mesmerizing experience. “Wedding” was composed by Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and was inspired by a trip to the Syrian countryside where weddings often take place. These weddings are usually loud, rowdy, and unpredictable, and the song reflects that atmosphere.
A unique take on the American folk standard “St. James Infirmary Blues” features vocalist Rhiannon Giddens (formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) singing her heart out on the tragedy-fueled classic with a bizarre yet intoxicating collection of influences. I hear jazz, bluegrass, traditional Asian instrumentation, and—if I’m not mistaken—something vaguely resembling Klezmer. In another fine example of culture meshing, “O’Neill’s Cavalry March” by Irish composer Martin Hayes is transformed through the addition of kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument and shakuhachi, a Japanese flute.
With the assortment of guest artists on the roster for Sing Me Home, it’s tempting to dismiss the album at first glance as an all-star vanity project for Yo-Yo Ma, but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, guests are not in any way shoehorned into the proceedings; the contributions are natural, seamless and bring out the best in each performance. Second of all, the project is intensely personal for everyone involved, particularly the composers and arrangers; as they provide musical interpretations of their homes to a wide audience, terms like “vanity” and “cash grab” seem refreshingly out of place in a unique masterpiece like this. Sing Me Home may have the feel of a history lesson, but it’s a lesson by your cool professor who insists on making learning loose, fun, and infectious.