On the Silk Road with Yo-Yo Ma
Cellist's New Album Serves Up a Eurasian Musical Stew
Listen to Scott Simon's conversation with Yo-Yo Ma
May 25, 2002 -- One of the many instruments played on Yo-Yo Ma's latest album, Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet, is the Mongolian morin khuur, also called the "horse-head fiddle." The bowed instrument has two strings and, often, features a carving of a horse's head at the top of the neck.
Ma, world-renowned cellist, had a hard time with it. "I can assure you, having fewer strings doesn't make it twice as easy," he tells Scott Simon for Weekend Edition Saturday. The album is part of the Silk Road Project, a series of undertakings celebrating the mixed musical culture of the ancient trade route.
Around 1500, travelers on the Silk Road could often be found with the morin khuur, which Ma says was a "nomadic instrument." Nomadic, but not alone. The Silk Road, which joined East and West not only for trade, but also as a cultural link, was filled with song.
Ma said he made this album featuring music inspired by this ancient route for thoroughly modern reasons. "Every time I open a newspaper, I am reminded that we live in a world where we can no longer afford not to know our neighbors," he was recently quoted as saying. "The Silk Road Project is a musical way to get to know your neighbors."
It's also a way to bring together people with entirely different musical sensibilities. Ma tells of a recording session for Silk Road where the group needed to redo part of a 20-minute-long piece, but they had only five minutes to finish. "Let's start from measure 74," Ma called out. But Sandeep Das, the Indian tabla player, had trouble with that. "You know, I don't use music," Das told his cohorts. "I can only know this piece if you play through the whole thing."
"So there's a cultural moment," says Ma. "You have to go through the whole thing -- but then he knows it cold." Ma says working with these musicians -- from Iran, India, China, the Mediterranean and from outside the Silk Road territory -- gave him "a deeper way of being in the moment."
The Silk Road Project.
The Silk Road Foundation is a good place to learn about the ancient route.