There won’t be nearly as many people on stage at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night for the Silk Road Ensemble’s concert as there will be in Rio’s Estádio do Maracanã for the Olympics closing ceremonies — just 16 as opposed to more than 11,000. Nor will there be remotely as many countries, cultures and traditions represented.
It’s still impressive.
“Let’s see,” says Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor, virtuoso of the “spike fiddle” kamancheh, who co-founded the group with Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, calling from the tour bus on the Indianapolis-to-Chicago road. “There are two Chinese, and Yo-Yo is an American of Chinese heritage. We have Sandeep Das from India, Kinan Azmeh from Syria, myself from Iran, Cristina Pato from Galicia in Spain. Oh, and Kojiro Umezaki from Japan.”
Then there are the other Americans, though most are hyphenates: one born in Russia, another of Swiss roots, one currently living in Singapore with a teaching job, and so on.
So that’s eight countries-of-origin. Nine if we count Brooklyn. And a bunch more if we go beyond the touring group to the extended Silk Road family of composers and collaborators.
||| Live: Silk Road Ensemble performs at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl. Tickets.
To say that the music they make together intertwines all those roots would be a gross understatement. The music it will make Sunday, and heard on its albums including this year’s “Sing Me Home,” explores all the tendrils of life in a world where the very concept of who we are, where we are home, what “home” really means, is reshaped daily by our and our families’ physical migrations and our digital interconnectedness.
The numbers may not be Olympian, but the ideals and intents are: the belief that we can make the world better simply by bringing people together.
“It doesn’t matter where I’m coming from, but all about overcoming ignorance.”
“It doesn’t matter where I’m coming from, but all about overcoming ignorance,” Kalhor says. “I strongly think ignorance is a basis for every problem we’ve had in the world. I’ve seen it. When we don’t know something, we get defensive and have conflicts and wars. If we know each other, if we give the opportunity to know each other, there is no problem to be solved. It’s about respect, and being willing to know each other.”
And as with the Olympics, it’s not overtly political. But it’s hard not to make those connections and read that into it, especially given the kind of rhetoric and actions here, in Europe and just about everywhere today.
“It’s always been there in the Silk Road ethos,” Umezaki says. “Now the environment is bringing more of a spotlight to it, how there is this divisive language. Brings more meaning to what we’re doing.”
Kalhor puts it thus: “We work in the cultural department of this. We are in the cultural, musical department of that, and it’s amazingly satisfying to be part of it, trying to fix what you think is missing, or broken.”
The whole of the Silk Road mission can be seen vibrantly in “The Music of Strangers,” the documentary released earlier this year. It was directed by Morgan Neville, whose last music film, the background singers feature “20 Feet From Stardom,” took the best documentary feature Oscar in 2014. The film looks at the Ensemble and the parent Silk Road Project cultural and educational operation, primarily focusing on Azmeh, Kalhor, Ma, Pato and Chinese pipa player Wu Man and their relationships to home — in some cases, including Azmeh and Kalhor, homes and cultural traditions in grave peril. War, displacement, oppression, despair all come into play through the eyes, and ears, of musicians who have spent their lives trying to grasp and express that with music.
“Can a piece of music stop a bullet?”
“Can a piece of music stop a bullet?” muses clarinetist Azmeh in the film, returning home to Damascus, a site of great devastation,
With that portion of the film in mind, violinist Colin Jacobsen of the sting quartet Brooklyn Rider, which as a whole is incorporated into the Silk Road Ensemble, puts a group visit to Aleppo in an earlier time among the most significant chapters in its — and his — evolution.
“It was in the summer of 2000, a very different scene,” says Jacobsen, who has composed and arranged various pieces for the ensemble. “We played in this beautiful citadel on a hill, that now has been destroyed. Again.”
And, of course, 9/11 came not too long after that, not to mention many other events that deeply impacted members of the group directly. Another profound experience as a member of this for Jacobsen was when he and his Brooklyn Rider partners went to stay with Kayhan in Iran on a cultural exchange program set up through the Silk Road Project.
“That was life-changing,” he says. “I had not been writing or arranging music for the ensemble, or for anything. But after that I came home and thought I needed to give something back. All the events in Iran in the years since I’ve known Kayhan … all this says that in our time together, the music is precious and feels good to do, but it goes well beyond the music, for sure.”
Umezaki, who is on the music faculty at the University of California at Irvine, has also welcomed members of the ensemble to his father’s home region of Kumamoto in southern Japan, devastated earlier this year by strong earthquakes.
“That’s some of the most memorable things for me, sharing that,” he says. “Would love to have them back. When there’s something like [the earthquakes] and we need to put a spotlight on one of our homes, this group is very quick to do something. We try to think that way about our homes.”
And that brings us back to the music and the ever-expanding Silk Road reach. The “Sing Me Home” album is full of complements to the film’s portraits: Guest Rhiannon Giddens sings the southern U.S. lament “St. James Infirmary Blues” to music drawn from the stateless, oppressed Euro-Asian Roma people. Irish fiddler Martin Hayes takes the guest role duetting with Kalhor’s kamancheh for Jacobsen’s setting of “O’Neill’s Cavalry March.” And “Going Home,” an African-American spiritual in the arrangement by Bohemian composer Anton Dvorak, is sung by guest Abigail Washburn and Silk Road mainstay Wu Tong — largely in Chinese, as Washburn became fluent while working there some years back.
One new, as-yet-unrecorded piece that will be heard Sunday is cited by both Jacobson and Umezaki as their current example of the challenging goals and high ideals the ensemble sets for itself. It’s an arrangement Jacobsen has done of “Zyryab,” a composition by the late Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. It was originally a jazz-fusion piece the guitarist had done with pianist Chick Corea, based on and honoring a 10th century Persian Kurdish oud player who had lived in Cordoba, then the capital of Al Andalus, now in Spain, his music seen as a key early step in what became flamenco.
“It’s jazz fusion chord changes,” Jacobsen says. “And I hoped Kayhan would play on it from his lineage that is through the music. But I knew it wouldn’t be that easy. And there’s the Spanish musician, Cristina Pato, with us, but her Galician tradition is Celtic, not Andalusian. But she plays piano on this, in the way of Chick, getting that groove. But the other thing that drew me to the tune is that the gorgeous chord changes show a two-way street. Ravel loved flamenco, was all about the Iberian Peninsula. Meanwhile I hear Paco and so many others showing love for Debussy and Ravel and influenced by them. I can’t say for sure, but the piece feels like flamenco influencing Ravel, and Ravel in turn influencing Paco’s flamenco.”
It’s, as an earlier Silk Road album title put it, “Off the Map.” And that’s the point.
“We’re constantly trying to evolve.”
“We’re constantly trying to evolve,” says Kalhor, who also just released an album with Kurdish singer Aynur, jazz pianist Salman Gabarov and Turkish tembur player Cemil Qocgiri as the Hawniyaz Ensemble, and is preparing a project with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate, who was another “Sing Me Home” guest. “And after the movie, to share the dimension of who we are, for people to get to know us personally, they see this comes naturally after where we were before. And where we go to now — I hope it’s a natural continuation of where we are now.”
After chatting for a while, Kalhor comes up with the word that best describes the essence of the Silk Road Ensemble’s approach.
He says, simply, “Possibilities.”