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Here are 3 albums (4 CDs) of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Recordings. I would describe the "Musical Caravan" as a collection of folk music and the Silk Road Ensemble as a fusion of folk and modern classical. Every musician heard here is a virtuoso, but be advised, this is not for the casual listener!
The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan
"What if Marco Polo had owned tape recorder?" This intriguing concept is raised in the liner notes to this impressive two-CD set, which wanders along ancient Asian trade routes known as the Silk Road. The first disc, Masters & Traditions, deals with formal styles performed by and for sophisticated connoisseurs. Meanwhile, the music on Minstrels and Lovers is played by amateurs who are part of daily life and thus reach a wider audience. The imaginary caravan passes through Iran, Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan, encountering nomads, mystics, and bards along the way. The instruments are scratchy, pungent, and/or serene, while the singers weave a potent spell out of a millennium's worth of slow-changing rural and urban vistas. In the opening essay, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the project's artistic director, pleads for intercultural communication and empathy. This compilation provides an exotic, brave, entertaining first step in that direction.
When Strangers Meet - The Silk Road Project
This recording includes music from Mongolia, China, Persia, Japan, Iran, Azerbaijan, and an improvisation on an Italian Renaissance street song, performed by musicians from all those countries, as well as America, on both Eastern and Western instruments. Ma, who participates in every piece either as soloist or part of the ensemble, plays cello and a Mongolian "horse-head fiddle." There is also a Mongolian soprano, who sings a traditional song native to her region. For the uninitiated Western listener, the music requires some getting used to. Much of it is based on rhythmic ostinatos. The melodies use Oriental scales; the intonation is untempered; the music seems all color, texture, and atmosphere, without what might be called themes; and repetition takes the place of development. Contrast is achieved through sudden change, buildup by adding instruments. However, the music is often beautiful, delicate, dreamy, or peaceful; every listener will find his or her own favorite pieces. The playing is splendid, with much inventive improvisation. Inevitably, Ma's tone and personality stand out, but he never dominates in fact or spirit. The booklet offers essays by Ma and the project's musicologist, Theodore Levin, photographs of the players, and drawings of the Eastern instruments.
Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon
It is a perilous proposition when genres clash--and no such collaboration is more potentially fraught than when improvisation-trained folk musicians sit in with Western classical instrumentalists, who are taught to interpret a printed score. The renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has devoted much of his professional life to such intercultural experiments. But the traditions of nations situated along the ancient Silk Road, which began in the Far East, meandered through Asia and terminated in Europe, are especially dear to him. These lushly arranged pieces range from moody scenic vistas to percussive Turkish hip-shakers and they make very pleasant listening. If they owe more to the European canon than the ethnic sources that inspired them, they are also the result of respectful give-and-take between a team of acknowledged masters. And nobody is more of a team player than Maestro Ma, an impassioned, fearless musical seeker and a gracious, deferential colleague.