The Silk Road.
Traders on camels, or on horseback maybe. Grimy and exhausted from weeks of riding on winding, mountainous, godforsaken roads. Dusty, crowded market streets. A crescendo of voices bargaining in quaint tongues. The aroma of exotic spices. The splashes of color. The rustle of silk. The play of strange textures and tastes on your tongue. Delight at a rare find, one that is sure to excite customers back home. Mounds and mounds of bags laden with goods strapped to beasts of burden. Then on to another country, another town, another market, in pursuit of the next great discovery.
The images are from so long ago that even in a memory the video plays out in grainy images, the screen crackling as it moves from one image to the next.
The pictures are only as detailed as a middle school history text book -splayed open on a wooden desk in a bright, airy classroom with 50 other girls - will allow, but embellished with abandon by a wild imagination. All I know, then, of the Silk Road is the faint memory of an imagined textbook narration.
Not any more. The Silk Road Project gives my understanding of the Silk Road a whole new dimension.
The brainchild of acclaimed cellist Yo Yo Ma, the Project's mission statement is as simple as it is profound:
Inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, the Silk Road Project is a catalyst, promoting innovation and learning through the arts.In pursuit of this vision, Ma has assembled 60 musicians, composers and story tellers from 20 countries into the Silk Road Ensemble. "Each Ensemble member's career illustrates a unique response to what is one of the artistic challenges of our times: nourishing global connections while maintaining the integrity of art rooted in authentic tradition," says a brochure of the Project. Since the late 90s when the Project was first conceived, the Ensemble has performed on numerous occasions in Asia, Europe and North America, most recently at the Presidential Inauguration in Washington, D.C.
Our vision is to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe.
The one idea - that an ancient trade route could serve as a metaphor for exploring connections in this modern-day globalized world; that, paradoxically, you preserve tradition by throwing yourself open to the winds of innovation - is working itself out in many different ways. Groups of musicians have come together at various times and at various locations for residences at museums and universities, workshops, interactive sessions with children, and for performances that showcase the interplay of the diverse traditions in one musical composition.
The Project's website is a treasure trove of colors, designs and ideas. It contains audio clippings, photographs and videos of the Ensemble's performances and workshops, interviews with the members, maps of the Silk Route, and beautiful images from those various countries. I could just look at those photographs for ever. Simultaneously it is also a tangible testament to how starkly different we are. Our dresses, our instruments, our music, our religions, our languages, our food, our landscape, our histories, our traditions.
Sandeep Das, Tabla player and Member, The Silk Road Ensemble
Source: The Silk Road Project
It is so easy to see why a project of this nature should not work. No more difficult than just turning on the news channels or reading the newspapers. Every day brings news of a new religious conflict, of disasters made worse by apathy, of terrorism, and of social and economic oppression along the Silk Route. But this is what makes an idea like the Silk Road Project all the more precious. That someone could turn a blind eye to the debilitating nature of these fundamental differences and see them instead as a cause for celebration and coming together is a cause for celebration in itself.
Ma inspires great respect. His demeanor, his enthusiasm for his music, his joy in taking music to children and his obvious skill are uplifting. It is no surprise that he was named a UN Ambassador for Peace. But will this idea ever percolate down to everyday life? Or is it, like many ideas of potentially far-reaching import, for ever condemned to float in that rarefied atmosphere unattainable to the majority?
Which is why it is heartening that Ma is targeting his message to children in the various countries. I cannot think of a more powerful message of humanity and peace than a walking, talking, rag-tag group of people standing in front of you and making music and enjoying it. And what better way to ensure that it resonates wider for longer than delivering it to the coming generation of thinkers and doers?
The Silk Road Project Website
Silk Road Radio
Silk Road Maps
Recommended Books for Children
Silk Road Project Videos on YouTube