The Silkroad Ensemble Weaves Together Music and People

Music has long been recognized for its ability to bring people together. But can its healing powers help to suture the divides wrought by pandemic distancing and growing social unrest? The Silkroad Ensemble shows us the possibilities even in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.

This award-winning team of virtuosos has met the challenges of 2020 by creating and performing music that breaks down barriers and builds connections between different cultures. More than twenty years ago, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma recruited musicians from nations in the eponymous ancient silk road trade network between East Asia and the Mediterranean to found Silkroad. He sought to create a dynamic where people with vastly different musical styles and traditions could share ideas and embrace new musical possibilities. The Ensemble’s goal: “to advance global understanding, deepen learning, and promote cross-cultural collaboration.”

Today, Silkroad performers, composers and artists represent 20 countries from around the world. Along with Western orchestral instruments, the Ensemble showcases virtuosos on everything from the gaita (Galician bagpipe) and pipa (Chinese lute) to the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), tabla (Indian hand drum) and many more. This eclectic blend has resonated: in 2016, Silkroad won a Grammy for Best World Music Album for Sing Me Home, which was developed in conjunction with the making of the Grammy-nominated The Music of Strangers, a documentary about the Ensemble performing in different countries. The Silkroad Ensemble has performed in venues throughout the world ranging from concert halls and public squares to museum galleries.

In assembling different musicians and instruments from around the world, the Silkroad Ensemble amplifies music’s power to connect people and promote a social cohesion needed now more than ever.

Music Promotes Social Cohesion

Music has long been a language of connection in social groups and may have served to unify people even before spoken language. Unlike the spoken word, it allows the sharing of a mental state with several people at once, without the need for words or face-to-face interaction.

By innately encouraging synchronization to a beat, music can help people in turn sync with one another. It is then no wonder that music plays a major role in the rituals around the world and has been found to be important for promoting cohesion in families and in peer groups across cultures. Experimental studies have found singing, in both small and large groups, affects how bonded people feel with each other as well as their levels of oxytocin, a hormone linked to social bonding.

In fact, one study found that music that promotes social inclusion with lyrics like “We have to bring the world together” and “I wanna see the world united and learn to live as one” can reduce animosity and prejudice between disparate groups, promoting new cultural understanding.

With musicians from around the world, the Silkroad Ensemble has made bringing together different groups of people through music a central part of its mission.

Evolving from Musical Collaboration to Cultural Ambassador

The Silkroad Ensemble has become more than an ensemble over the years and evolved into a diverse performing, education and social justice organization whose artists are also teachers, producers, arts leaders and advocates. This dedicated team spreads its positive influence in professional workshops, university residences and public school classrooms.

Kathy Fletcher, Silkroad’s new Executive Director, is especially excited about Silkroad’s work at the North Cheyenne Native American community in Lame Deer, Montana. Before being appointed to her current position, she served as co-founder of Turnaround Arts under First Lady Michelle Obama, a program using the strategic deployment of the arts to overcome educational challenges in schools. “I have dedicated my life to issues of equity and justice and am excited by the potential we have here at Silkroad,” Fletcher says. “Not only to create world-class music but to impact social change on both the individual level and more broadly.”

The collaboration in Lame Deer exemplifies this social impact. The community has a poverty rate nearing 40% and is predominantly Native American, a demographic that has been historically underserved and especially hard-hit during the pandemic.

Since 2012, Silkroad artists from a number of countries have gone to Lame Deer Junior High School to exchange music, stories, and traditions with students and teachers. These experiences are helping students express their emotions and heighten their sense of identity through engagement in the arts. “We are both deepening the impact there and scaling to five other indigenous communities in the United States in the next three years,” says Fletcher. “It’s exciting and important work, with so much on the line for the kids in these under-resourced communities.”

Weaving Musical Notes and People Together

Silkroad has many other ambitious projects on the horizon that address important social issues and find the hidden commonalities between groups of people.

Rhiannon Giddens, who became Silkroad’s new Artistic Director in July 2020, has launched The American Silkroad, a multiyear project which will focus on the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1800s and explore the rich, often-untold history of the Chinese immigrants, African-Americans and native populations involved in its building.

A versatile musician, singer and composer, Giddens was formerly with the Grammy-winning folk group Carolina Chocolate Drops and represents the Silkroad’s goal of bridging seemingly disparate groups; she was trained as an opera singer and is known for bringing back the tradition of Black American string bands as a fiddler and banjo player. Silkroad is about “chipping away at who gets to say ‘I represent America,’” she said in a recent interview about the project with The New York Times.

Other projects include Home Within, which uses music and visual arts to address the Syrian uprising and its ongoing aftermath. It will begin touring virtually in April 2021 and include a series of outreach programs in conjunction with refugee-assistance centers, nursing homes, and universities. And more recently, Silkroad collaborated on a special online concert to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, the largest organization dedicated to fostering social cohesion around the world.

Music Makes the World Go ‘Round

Silkroad violinist Colin Jacobsen observed, “the value in music that crosses perceived or real boundaries seems to have taken on a new importance.” Can music truly change the world when it needs changing?

Perhaps the best answer to this question was stated by Wu Man, Silkroad virtuoso of the pipa: “The role of music/culture has become more important in today’s social unrest. It is the most basic expression and communication of human beings, and an important chain that connects us all; it is the spiritual experience we all need.”

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated series on Arts for Health Equity and Social Justice which will examine the role of the arts in social change.   

Please join us as we Look & Listen—engaging with the art emerging in this historical moment—so that we can Learn and then take meaningful Action in the social justice movement.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Contributor Ed Decker. Ed Decker is a freelance neuroscience writer and former Science/Health Editor at Rewire Me, a wellness website. 

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