Skip to main content

The Silk Road

A musical caravan

Most of the music on The Silk Road comes from producer Jean During's own field recordings. Only a few tracks were included from small record companies and two tracks originally appeared on Folkways Records.

At the end of the 13th Century C.E., Marco Polo set out on a legendary journey from Europe to eastern Asia. Looking at rich musical traditions present along the Silk Road (the epic trade routes of Central Asia), music scholars beg the question, "What if Marco Polo had carried a tape recorder?" From that question comes an expansive collection of central and western Asian music: The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan.

In conjunction with the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program about cultures along the historical Silk Road, producers Jean During and Ted Levin, along with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma as Artistic Director, collected 47 tracks spanning from Xi'an (formerly Chang'an), the capital of ancient China, through central Asia to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

During and Levin concentrated on Turco-Mongol and Persiante cultures because they represent not only a coherent musical realm, but also a general mystery to most Western audiences. While the musical traditions of India and the Middle East are relatively well documented, those of the remote peoples of Central Asia and north-western China are not.

The collection is divided into two discs: the first, Masters & Traditions, concentrates on program music and classical music—music written to be enjoyed by connoisseurs or courts. This music is from sedentary peoples and is highly structured and, unlike the music of nomadic cultures, it features very technical drumming and is deeply affected by Islam and its texts.

The second disc, Minstrels & Lovers, is divided into three sections: The Nomadic Sound, Traditions of Festivity, and Spiritual Music. This is music traditionally meant for broader audiences. The music is by folk artists who do not always make a living from their art. It features lyrical bards of nomadic cultures and mystical music performed as a means of approaching transcendence.

In his introduction to the liner notes of the discs, Yo-Yo Ma discusses the important role of music in achieving cross-cultural understanding. The diverse sounds on these discs beautifully illustrate his point.

The River Herlen
Kyrgyz Wisdom Song