Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble build bridges between cultures one note at a time

by

Special To The Japan Times

Even before the Grammy award for best world music album was announced during a pre-telecast ceremony on Feb. 12, Haruka Fujii was awestruck.

“Walking on the red carpet at the venue, I didn’t even know where to look because everyone was dressed so gorgeously,” the Saitama-born percussionist says excitedly. “Adele passed behind us!”

When the presenter read the name of her group, the multimember Silk Road Ensemble, which won for the album “Sing Me Home,” Fujii and seven other ensemble members walked up on stage to receive the award. She says it was a “moving moment.”

“It was like in a dream when we were on the stage with the golden statue in our hands,” she says.

Also present was fellow ensemble member and shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, who was as equally elated that “Sing Me Home” was recognized: “It’s about celebrating all kinds of viewpoints, which we really need right now.”

Bringing together musicians from more than 20 countries, the Silk Road Ensemble was formed in 2000 by world-renowned Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The group is the subject of a 2015 documentary film by Morgan Neville titled “The Music of Strangers,” which opens in Japan this weekend.

“One of the things I came to realize through my travels was how fast the world is changing; the influences of people who are geographically distant are more visible — it’s a phenomenon that some call globalization,” Ma tells The Japan Times via email, adding that people have always influenced each other, but it used to happen more slowly.

“The historical Silk Road is an extraordinary example of that,” Ma continues. “I was inspired to start the Silkroad project because I saw many people who were responding to globalization with fear. I wanted (them to see) the benefits of living in a connected world.”

Umezaki, who is of Japanese and Danish descent, joined the ensemble in the summer of 2001, the year it played outside of America for the first time.

“It was originally planned as a temporary project. But soon after our (overseas debut), the 9/11 attacks occurred,” Umezaki says, adding that after thinking about the kind of impact the multicultural group could have, they decided it was important to commit to it.

The Silk Road Ensemble now has seven albums under its belt and, according to Ma, its guiding concept is that every tradition around the world is the result of successful innovation.

“The album ‘Sing Me Home’ showcases not only the traditional sounds of some of the places the ensemble members call home, but also the process of marrying those traditions with other cultures,” Ma explains.

In “The Music of Strangers,” Neville retraces the journey Silk Road Ensemble has taken through performance and archival footage and interviews with the members. Some of those appearing in the film include Ma, Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Iranian kamancheh master Kayhan Kalhor and Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, all of whom have been affected by the situations of their home countries. One of the film’s highlights happens when Azmeh visits a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

“I was nervous going into the camp, because I know how hard the situation is,” says Azmeh, who teaches music to the children living in the camp in the film. “These are kids that are forced to become adults. But when you sit and play with them, it’s incredibly moving to see how strong they are. And how delicate they are.

“I know that my clarinet will not bring refugees back home, nor stop the bombs from falling from the sky, but I know that music can bring a smile to somebody, and inspire somebody to be proactive.”

The film begins and ends with powerful sessions by these musicians from various backgrounds. However, even when you get so many top-caliber performers in one room there can still be challenges in working together.

Fujii, who joined the ensemble in 2010, confesses that at first she got lost in her improvising while performing alongside leading tabla artist Sandeep Das, who was trained to improvise in the style of traditional Indian music that doesn’t use scores.

“It was totally different from what I had learned in Western classical percussion,” Fujii says, adding that her peers were patient while she got used to the dynamic. “It’s now my turn to support my colleague Sandeep when we collaborate like an orchestra in performing pieces written by composers.”

Azmeh agrees that all the members have their own strengths and weaknesses.

“You have to have the courage to make mistakes,” he admits.

On one hand, Umezaki points out that it’s practical to have some kind of common notation, “even though it’s not the best score for all the instruments.” But he also emphasizes the importance of empathy.

“I think it’s helpful for us to listen, but not just with our ears,” he says. For example, when he performs the shakuhachi with Galician bagpigper Christina Pato, he tries to move along with her so he can create a connection. It’s not the type of shakuhachi performance audiences may be used to.

“If you do that, then you are more committed to how the music is being created,” he says.

“We are communicating holistically, which is an important way to bridge the gap between different musical systems,” Umezaki says.

More importantly, the Silk Road Ensemble is attempting to bridge the gap between different cultures. The recent Grammy is just icing on the cake.

“We are always looking for the global in the local, trying to understand what’s precious to someone else, and looking for what we have in common,” Ma says. “As artists in the 21st century we must all be masters of tradition and adept at innovation, able to apply the universal values expressed by art — such as openness, empathy and collaboration — in new ways that suit our own era.”

“The Music of Strangers” will be screening from March 4 at cinemas nationwide. For more details, visit www.yoyomasilkroad.com.