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Yo-Yo Ma's Other Passion

In celebrating the cultures of the ancient Silk Road, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has found a second calling

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Yo-yo ma creeps catlike across a Brussels stage to the spooky rhythm of kettledrums. “What animal am I?” he asks a group of rapt 10-year-olds. “A tiger,” a boy calls out. “Right,” Ma says. “Do you see how the music creates a picture? Now listen to this Chinese ballad. A grief-stricken man is telling a terrifying tale about his mother getting eaten by a tiger.”

Ma strikes up the band—in this case a cello, violin, timpani, marimba, and, from China, a pipa(lute) and a mouth organ, or sheng. Again, the rumbling timpani signal an approaching tiger. Suddenly, Wu Tong, the sheng player, lets loose a bloodcurdling solo in Mandarin, flinging back his long black hair and looking like a wild man. The children give each other startled looks. The music grows softer, then fades away. The youngsters erupt in applause.

Now Ma asks what the fifth graders think was going on when the music quieted. “The singer’s mother had been eaten?” offers a girl. “Exactly,” says Ma. “The story is from Szechuan opera, and the performers sing like this,” he says, rising on tiptoe and warbling a few wobbly falsetto notes. The kids titter. “Better stick to my cello, huh?” he says, flashing a mock frown.

Touring the globe as a performer for over 25 years, Ma became fascinated with the way that music and its instruments metamorphosed around the world, particularly along the East-West trade routes known as the Silk Road, connecting Europe and Asia. Over time, he came to wonder if music could promote greater understanding among disparate, even conflicting, cultures. Beyond playing the cello, Ma began to experiment with fostering a sort of musical multiculturalism. “If I know what music you love and you know what music I love, we start out having a better conversation,” he says. Four years ago, he launched the Silk Road Project to, as he then put it, “study the flow of ideas among different cultures along the Silk Road.”

Ever since Marco polo talked his way out of a Genoese prison with tales of the fantastical East, images of the Silk Road have stirred the West’s imagination. Stretching from Japan to the Mediterranean, this network of trade routes flourished for some 1,600 years, from around 200 b.c. through the 1400s. German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the name in the 1870s, but silk was only one of the precious commodities carried by camel caravans across frozen mountain passes, parched deserts, verdant pasturelands, and peach and pomegranate orchards. Furs, ceramics and medicinal rhubarb moved west along with gunpowder and printing presses. In return, gold, glass, textiles and ivory traveled east. More important, the Silk Road encouraged myriad peoples to intermingle and trade not only goods but also art, music, literature and ideas. Merchants, monks, adventurers and musicians converged on Samarkand, Kashgar, Bukhara and other oases. With the explosion in commerce that came from trade, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism and, later, Islam spread across the region. But like all economic bubbles, this early foray into globalization burst when traders abandoned caravans in favor of faster sealanes. By 1500, the Silk Road had been eclipsed.

But its influences hardly waned. In 1998, Ma organized two symposia of experts from museums, the music industry and academe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Paris to figure out how the Silk Road Project might best work. Shortly after the first symposium, Ma invited Ted Levin, a pianist and a DartmouthCollege professor who had been studying and recording central Asian music for nearly three decades, to become the project’s executive director. Levin introduced Ma to Silk Road musicians from near (an irrepressible band of ethnic Bukharan Jews who imported the lyrical tradition of maqâm, a type of Islamic classical music, to Queens, New York) and far (in Amsterdam, Levin and Ma met with Mongolian street musicians). Out of these early encounters emerged the Silk Road Ensemble, a peripatetic collective of musicians from 17 countries that fluctuates in size from 12 to 32 members. Since its first performance at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany in August 2001, the ensemble has given dozens of concerts in France, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States. (In addition, the project has produced films and sponsored storytelling performances, open rehearsals, exhibitions, festivals and lectures about the Silk Road region to audiences around the world.)

Soon after forming the Silk Road Project, Ma realized that the existing repertoire of music blending Eastern and Western instruments was limited, so in 1999 he and a panel of composers, musicians and musicologists began commissioning 20 new works by composers from nine Silk Road countries. Weaving together traditional instruments from many cultures, their contemporary compositions draw from hypnotic Sufi trance music, exuberant Uzbek folk chants and thunderous Korean drumming, updating musical traditions that go back more than 3,000 years.

After rehearsing and polishing the new compositions in the United States and France, the Silk Road Ensemble, with Ma as artistic director, kicked off a 20-month world tour last August in Germany. In January, the group performed in Amsterdam and Brussels, and last month at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The ensemble will go next to Washington, D.C., where they will play a series of concerts at the ten-day Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 26-30 and July 3-7 (see “From the Secretary,” page 20). Unlike previous ones, this year’s festival has a single theme: the cultures of the Silk Road and their influence on the world.

Yo-Yo Ma was born in 1955 in Paris, to which his parents had emigrated from China. His father, a composer, violinist and musicologist, taught Europeans about Chinese music. Yo-Yo initially spoke Mandarin and French, and picked up English at age 7, when his parents moved to New York City to join Yo-Yo’s uncle and his family. Before Ma left for the United States, he made his professional debut at the University of Paris on both the cello and the piano. Isaac Stern was in the audience and said that he “could sense then that Ma has one of the extraordinary talents of this generation.” When Ma was 9, Stern arranged for him to study with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School of Music. Yo-Yo gave his first performance at Carnegie Hall at 15. Emanuel Ax, who now performs with Ma, attended that recital and said recently, “It was the most incredible exhibition of string playing I’ve ever heard from such a young player.”

Two years later, Ma began his studies in humanities at Harvard; during college summers he performed at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. There he started dating Jill Hornor, a student at MountHolyoke. The two were married in 1977 and now have two children— Nicholas, 19, and Emily, 16. Ma’s full-time music career took off in 1978 when he won the LincolnCenter’s Avery Fisher Prize, awarded to a musician annually, based on excellence alone. Since the earliest days of his music career, he has performed with major orchestras and toured internationally as soloist, recitalist and chamber musician. Widely acclaimed for his interpretations of the Bach suites, Ma broke new ground in 1998 when he made six films exploring each of the suites, collaborating with artists from other disciplines: choreographer Mark Morris, filmmaker Atom Egoyan and garden designer Julie Moir Messervy. Ma has also explored the traditional music of Appalachia and the Argentine tango.

Perhaps because of his own background, Ma has been particularly intrigued by the intersections of cultures—how Roman glass ended up in a Hanoi museum, or how silk can be found in ancient burial sites in Egypt, or why folk songs in Xianjiang in western China are similar to songs in Hungary. “It seems that when connections flow, cultures thrive—such as that in Xi’an during the Tang dynasty [a.d. 618-907], when Muslims, Christians, Jews and Persians all mingled,” says Ma.

“Whenever two cultures meet,” he continues, “it’s the little things that make a big difference. In music, you learn that different phrasing, timing, rhythms mean very specific things. In classical Azerbaijani music, the goal is to transport you to a different place. That was also Beethoven’s goal. It’s universal, but every culture will find its own way of achieving that goal.” Ma hopes to see the results of his efforts to bring East and West together at the Folklife Festival, when 375 musicians and artists cross paths.

“Unfortunately, it’s taken the attacks on the WorldTradeCenter, the Pentagon and the war in Afghanistan to really bring into relief how Yo-Yo’s intuition was so prescient,” says ensemble member and pianist Joel Fan. “Understanding the cultures of central Asia is more compelling and necessary than ever.”

Levin, who brought Billy Joel to the former Soviet Union, and central Asian musicians to Washington in the 1980s, agrees. “The Silk Road Project shows us that there is much more to gain by being connected than by being cut off from one another, or isolated,” he says. “If knowledge about music and art can help us transcend boundaries, maybe we can learn to trust one another and build a more coherent civilization together.”



From Karachi to the Capital

On the outskirts of karachi, pakistan, mark kenoyer is looking for trucks. Painted trucks. Wildly decorated trucks. Trucks as art. A University of Wisconsin anthropology professor and codirector of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, Kenoyer is one of 50 roving fieldworkers who have fanned out along the ancient Silk Road to recruit artists and craftspeople for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Driving slowly through acres of warehouses, shops and rooming houses in this fenced-off trucking district, the burly specialist in South Asian crafts animatedly points out truck painting styles to Jamil Uddin, a truckbody builder, and Haider Ali, an artist. The pair will decorate a six-wheel, five-ton-load truck with psychedelic arabesques and flashy fittings for the Mall festival. “Look at the Mona Lisa on the back of that one,” Kenoyer calls out in fluent Urdu—the result of his many visits to Karachi over the years—as a truck sporting a Day-Glo riff on the world’s most famous portrait rumbles past. At a depot, where goods are loaded onto the trucks, dozens of the vehicles sit like mobile art exhibits, every inch of their seven-foot-high paneled sides, backs and jutting prows covered with glossy portraits of Pakistani heroes and dreamlike scenes of wooded lakes and snowcapped mountains. There are horses, eagles, tigers chasing deer, calligraphic poetry, mosques, fighter jets, flower roundels and diamond-shape reflective strips in eye-popping orange, green, yellow and red. Cab interiors are fitted with artificial flowers of silk and satin. Tiny faceted mirrors ring windshields, pom-poms dangle, and wall clocks are festooned with flashing lights like those on a Christmas tree. “I’ve wanted to construct my own Pakistani painted truck for years,” says Kenoyer, “so when I was asked to commission one for the festival, I was like Br’er Rabbit in the brier patch. Throw me in, please.”

Many decorating styles representing both ethnic groups and regions of the country will be represented in Kenoyer’s truck: camel-bone inlay from Baluchistan, cut-glass work and nickel-plated steel from Sindh, reflector and plastic appliques from Rawalpindi, and lots of dangles, beads and bells. Uddin and Ali will complete 80 percent of the decoration here in Karachi. The rest of the truck will be painted by Ali at the festival itself. “It will be a work in progress depicting Japanese papermakers, Venetian glassmakers, Mongolian dancers, Iranian acrobats or whatever he fancies going on around him on the Mall,” says Kenoyer.

To make a living, truckers haul goods—everything from flour, lentils and melons to rugs and car parts, much like the Neolithic traders who moved goods from the coast of Pakistan inland to central Asia more than 9,000 years ago. Long before painted trucks rolled across the Karakoram Highway into China, camel caravans followed roughly the same trails, and they, too, were heavily decorated.

Back in the city center, a warren of dusty streets and alleys crowded with rows of open-air shops is filled with the tools and ornaments of the truck painters’ trade. In one shop, gaudy gilt peacocks and fish sparkle among the shadows beneath beadwork eagles dangling from the ceiling. In a workshop nearby, a dapper metalworker, draped in an immaculately white knee-length tunic with matching prayer cap, hammers nickel steel sheets into mudguard flaps, creating repousse tigers and chevron designs he will later paint in bright colors. Down the lane, a 14-year-old boy brushes an iron grille with acid to remove rust. Ducking down a side street, Kenoyer squeezes past a ramshackle corrugated tin door to behold Uddin and Ali’s latest masterpiece, a 1980 Hino, a Japanese-manufactured, high-paneled truck sitting resplendently in the shade of a colossal banyan tree. The truck is a primer of Pakistani history, myth and aesthetics.

On its tailgate, flanked by twin Kashmiri mountain ranges, is a portrait of Pakistani martyr Sarwar Shaheed, depicted as a uniformed officer standing before the country’s green-and-white flag. Stainless steel balls in an unbroken row ring the underbody and clang together when the truck is under way. Above the cab, broad panels rise like cinema marquees covered with idealized renderings of the Taj Mahal, Mecca’s Kaabah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. On the truck’s sides, next to hot-pink curlicues and a sylvan lake scene, state-of-the-art Ghauri-3 missiles and an F-17 jet fly across a starry sky. “Pakistan has only the Ghauri-1 and -2 and the F-16,” says a smiling Kenoyer. “Maybe they’re trying to be ahead of the curve.

“Truckers put an astonishing amount of money into the decoration, some of them upwards of $700 for the painting and another $4,000 spent on the bodywork every three or four years,” he adds. Asked why they plow so much money into them, a trucker responds: “One-upmanship! It’s also good advertising to show how great business is.”

Across town, Kenoyer pays a call on Ghulam Mustafa, a Muslim who has spent most of his 56 years carving exquisite Buddhist sculptures. He plans to carve replicas of Gandharan sculptures at the Folklife Festival. From the second century b.c. through the fourth century a.d., the ancient province of Hellenistic Gandhara, 700 miles north of Karachi, produced one of the most sublime marriages of Western and Eastern aesthetics. Carved figures with togalike robes and halos were modeled after statuary of the Greek gods, yet typically possessed the serene expressions of devotion traditionally found in South Asian religious artworks.

Like the early stone carvers, Mustafa makes his living executing commissions for wealthy collectors. In his patron’s open-air studio, the white-bearded stone carver delicately chips away at a block of green schist that he’s hauled from his home near Gandhara. “Since the stone comes from the same region as the original sculptures, his copies appear authentic,” says Kenoyer. At the festival, Mustafa is planning to put together a Gandharan-style frieze with a Buddha in the center flanked by two bodhisattvas, Buddhist deities.

Like Yo-Yo Ma, Kenoyer believes that the current flurry of activities concerning the people and cultures of the Silk Road region can be a force for good. “The Folklife Festival is going to bring artists together again after many years of separation for political reasons,” he says. “It will be an unprecedented opportunity for these people to understand how their art can influence what someone else creates on the other side of the world.”

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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