The Silkroad Ensemble bridges borders with their music from more than 20 countries, resulting in a collaborative celebration. Iranian singer Tara Tiba takes us from the mystic sounds of Iran’s ancient Radif tradition to the passionate rhythm of Cuban music. And the pure, arid sound of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir makes its home in towering German cathedrals. These musicians’ stories present a compelling case that each of us has a connection to each other, regardless of our culture, lived experience and national identity.
Legendary cellist Yo Yo Ma founded the Silkroad Ensemble in 1998. Company manager Eduardo A Braniff says that it was used as a way to create “a new artistic idiom, a musical language founded in difference, a metaphor for the benefits of a more connected world.” The ancient trade routes of the Silk Road network connected the east and west and likewise, the Silkroad Ensemble connects countries and fosters “productive cultural collaboration, for the exchange of ideas and tradition alongside commerce and innovation.”
Coming together through music was the obvious choice. “Music is the foundation of our model of radical cultural collaboration, a model in which each of our artists is deeply rooted in his or her own traditions, and deeply committed to innovating new musical idioms,” says Braniff. “In this manner, the Silkroad Ensemble celebrates tradition and furthers innovation.”
Their music functions as an antidote to prejudice, racism and fear in societies that are increasingly exposed to the pressures of terrorism, protectionism and the challenge of multiculturalism. “We believe that there is more that unites us than separates us,” says Braniff. “We are committed to finding a way through challenges knowing that the work and our collective is better for having done so.” The aim of their music is simple – it is to draw people together and it uses the power and passion in each one of its members’ stories, many of whom have experienced oppression in their homelands, to do so. “We hope to convey to audiences the joy we feel in presenting our myriad cultures, experiences and instruments,” says Braniff. “We hope to inspire in them curiosity about the music, but also about someone who is different from them.”
Compositions by the Silkroad Ensemble deliberately transcend time and place, but at once evoke musical memory in all of us. It is passionate music and open for interpretation, and it draws on so many centuries of historical influence.
When asked why music makes us feel connected to one another, Tiba proffers a simple answer. “Music makes us feel connected, because it makes us feel,” she says. Tiba was born in 1984, shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Under the new Islamic theocratic-republic, most western music was outlawed, and women were banned from singing in public. When speaking about her childhood, Tiba acknowledges she was born into a line of strong women. “When I look at my mother’s journey, this has made such a difference for me and the opportunities I have had… I often think life is like a set of dominoes – the decisions we make in another place or time can have such far-reaching influence on us all.”
For years, Tiba trained under a prominent Iranian vocal teacher in the classical music tradition of Radif. Radif music is composed for ancient Persian poetry and houses a very specific vocal technique known as tahrir – a unique, melismatic version of the warbling ornamentation so characteristic of Middle Eastern music. “Because we have been so isolated in Iran, [Radif] is still very much intact in its traditional sound. But I think now is the right time to take our sound to the rest of the world,” she says.
Her desire to connect others with the sound of her homeland has landed her, unexpectedly, in a band with Cuban pianist, Ivan Melon Lewis, to whom she attributes much of her recent success. This Iranian-Cuban collaboration is a forerunner for a wholly new, harmonic sound – until now, Iranian music has remained entirely monophonic. Tiba, who feels a unique connection with her Cuban band members, says “Cubans themselves, more than any other Latin American country, have much in common with Iran… It is felt in the culture, the way we talk, the way we cook, the way we feel… You would never think an Islamic revolutionist country and a post-Communist country would have much in common… But we do,” Tiba laughs. “Perhaps we both know what it feels like to be oppressed and then to find freedom again through our music.”
In 2006, music director Morris Stuart began recruiting members for a choir in Alice Springs. “While I was doing that,” says Stuart, “a young Aboriginal woman bailed me up in the street and said, ‘Oh, you’re teaching all those white fellas all those African songs, you should come and teach us as well’.” Thus began a journey which would have the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir touring Australia and eventually, Germany. The choir have unravelled and revived a 140-year-old tradition of choral hymn composition, translated into local Pitjantjatjara and West Arrernte languages by early German missionaries, which attests to the kindliness and unique respect with which Aboriginal people were treated by such mission groups. “The conjunction of Aboriginal languages and their tonality with German theology, sacred poetry and music from the early Romantic and Baroque periods or even earlier… is nothing short of remarkable and totally idiosyncratic,” says Stuart. The sound produced by the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir is at once familiar and totally unfamiliar, raw, joyful and deeply moving in its three-part harmonic depth. The choir is comprised of several groups from remote communities in central Australia.
In 2017, the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir toured Germany, singing their traditional songs in Lutheran cathedrals, some of which would have housed the people who taught these hymns to their communities generations ago. They received standing ovations wherever they went. “It forged a connection,” says Stuart. “Traditionally, both German and Aboriginal people translated their wisdom or knowledge through song… It was like a boomerang… The ladies were saying ‘you’ve brought something to us and we are bringing it back to you.
“They’re building a bridge with non-Aboriginal Australians as well,’ says Stuart. “They are saying, ‘we can connect, we can conquer this divide,’ and it makes non-Aboriginal Australians think ‘maybe it’s not hopeless, maybe we can connect somehow’.”
Put simply, each of us aches for belonging, but too often belonging is needlessly fractured by power, politics and otherness. This year, Tara Tiba, the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir and the Silkroad Ensemble remind us that we all belong to the same humanity, and that this connection cannot be stifled.