Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road En­sem­ble unite cul­tures through mu­sic

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Joe Heaney

If you thought be­com­ing a rocket sci­en­tist was hard, try be­ing a per­cus­sion soloist. It is some­thing Amer­i­can mu­si­cian Joseph Gramely en­ter­tained for a hot five min­utes in his youth, un­til he re­alised de­mand for per­cus­sion soloists wasn’t ex­actly high.

“Right now in the world, there may be less than you can name on one hand,” he says. But, per­haps, fate did him a favour. In­stead of forg­ing a path on his own, he has em­braced a col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Th­ese days, the 56- year- old spends much of his time in his dual role of as­so­ciate artis­tic di­rec­tor and per­former with YoYo Ma’s Silk Road En­sem­ble – which will per­form along­side the cel­e­brated cel­list at the Emi­rates Palace Au­di­to­rium on Fri­day – as part of Abu Dhabi Fes­ti­val. Formed in 2000 by Yo-Yo Ma – “the most em­pa­thetic and open mu­si­cian”, ac­cord­ing to Grame- ly – the en­sem­ble fos­ter a no­ble am­bi­tion of bring­ing peo­ple of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties and cul­tures to­gether through mu­sic.

“I think the speed at which glob­al­i­sa­tion has been hap­pen­ing is what’s very new and unique in our time,” he says. “And the mis­sion of Silk Road is to [en­cour­age] em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing of other cul­tures through mu­sic, through com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trust.”

As one of the group’s founders, Gram­ley says there will be 12 per­form­ers at the Emi­rates Palace gig, and their na­tion­al­i­ties in­clude Syr­ian, Ja­panese, Rus­sian, Amer­i­can, In­dian, Chi­nese, Le­banese and Cana­dian.

Like all Silk Road gigs, many of the in­stru­men­tal com­bi­na­tions may not have been heard to­gether on stage be­fore and that’s the whole point. “We’ve de­vel­oped a sort of fam­ily at­mos­phere within the en­sem­ble,” he says.

“[It is made up of] mu­si­cians who have never met be­fore and whose in­stru­ments have never met be­fore. In­stru­ments that re­ally weren’t thought of as be­ing able to play to­gether can now com­mu­ni­cate through mu­sic. And mu­si­cians can be­come friends with­out say­ing a word.” It is not hard to see the metames­sage in all of this. But in­stead of be­ing bogged down by lofty ideals, the group’s con­certs are ac­tu­ally lots of fun. With six al­bums and a doc­u­men­tary ( 20 Feet from Star- dom, di­rected by Acad­emy Award-win­ner Mor­gan Neville) to their credit, they have also notched up sev­eral awards, in­clud­ing a Grammy.

There are two pieces that will be per­formed at the Emi­rates Palace Au­di­to­rium, which Gram­ley is par­tic­u­larly keen to talk about. The first, called Wed­ding, is by the Syr­ian com­poser and clar­inet­tist Ki­nan Azmeh. Gram­ley ex­plains that Azmeh’s mu­sic was al­ways im­por­tant for the group, but when the com­poser and band mem­ber was locked out of the US ear­lier this year fol­low­ing the travel ban, it took on a stronger res­o­nance. The piece rep­re­sents what hap­pens when a Syr­ian vil­lage comes to­gether for a wed­ding. “It is a cel­e­bra­tion of bring­ing peo­ple to­gether,” says Gram­ley.

The sec­ond piece springs from a darker ter­ri­tory. Com­posed by the Grammy-nom­i­nated Ira­nian ka­mancheh player Kay­han Kal­hor and in­spired by the vil- lages oblit­er­ated dur­ing the Iran- Iraq war, Silent City tells the re­birth of a metropo­lis that has been dec­i­mated by con­flict.

How­ever “it ends on a very pos­i­tive note”, says Gram­ley, and rep­re­sents the “joy of re­birth and re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion”.

“Both pieces are played by artists from all over the world,” he adds.

“Amer­i­cans, Syr­i­ans, Ira­ni­ans, In­di­ans and Chi­nese. I think th­ese two pieces show a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of the trust and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the bring­ing to­gether of cul­tures that YoYo be­lieves so strongly in – those val­ues that we all now hold so close to our hearts and that we try to rep­re­sent through our mu­sic.”

Khalid Al Bu­saidi / ROHM

Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road En­sem­ble.

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