Silkroad Ensemble imagines the sound of a country under construction

The Silkroad Ensemble, led by Rhiannon Giddens, is bringing life to her “American Railroad” project. MUST CREDIT: Adam Gurczak

On Friday, (November 3, 2023) Silkroad Ensemble released “Phoenix Rising,” a four-song EP recorded live at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. The release offers not only an abridged document of the group’s 2022 tour of the same name, but also a proper reintroduction of Silkroad under its new artistic director, Rhiannon Giddens.

And on Sunday, Silkroad embarks on the next phase of its biggest project to date, launching its “American Railroad: A Musical Journey of Reclamation” tour with a concert at George Mason University.

Silkroad Ensemble Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens. MUST CREDIT: Ebru Yildiz

Giddens, 46, is a celebrated banjoist, fiddle player and vocalist; a two-time Grammy winner; a MacArthur Fellow; and a founding member of groups including the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Gaelwynd and Our Native Daughters. In 2020, she was named the successor to Silkroad’s founding director, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who stepped down in 2017.

She’s a far different musician from Ma – steeped in country, blues and a spectrum of American folk traditions. And she’s as prolific a composer as a performer: Her opera “Omar,” about a West African Islamic scholar sold into slavery in South Carolina) runs Sunday through Nov. 21 at San Francisco Opera.

But she shares Ma’s vision of Silkroad as a model for cultural collaboration. “There is a communal energy that goes along with communal music and dance that we have totally, almost completely sucked out of our culture,” she says by phone from a hotel in New York City, where she was accepting her Pulitzer Prize for “Omar.”

These things take time, but Giddens’s musical impact is immediately detectable on “Phoenix Rising,” which opens with the North Carolina native’s own arrangement of the Appalachian folk song “O, Death,” here transformed into a restless invocation that unfolds atop a tangle of tablas, fiddles and flutes.

Evident in this unusual mix of instruments is the signature sound of Silkroad – a globally sourced and resolutely collaborative ensemble, dedicated to weaving the threads of various canons into new musical possibilities.

The “Phoenix” EP, for instance, includes two new commissions: one from Japanese flutist and percussionist Kaoru Watanabe’s “Ho-Oh,” and a new arrangement of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Ekla Cholo Re” by tabla player Sandeep Das – works that should sound worlds apart, but don’t.

The EP closes with a transformed arrangement of Peter Gabriel’s 1980 anti-apartheid anthem “Biko” by Colin Jacobsen (of the Knights and Brooklyn Rider). Gabriel’s original achieved an authoritative distance through its synthesized bagpipes, looping rhythmic throb and bookended samples of South African protest songs (“Ngomhla sibuyayo” and “Senzeni Na”). Silkroad’s take makes every texture tangible and immediate, the voices of Giddens and violinist Mazz Swift trading off within a swirl of textures – the pluck of Wu Man’s pipa, the grain of Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi flute, the timbral chorus of Haruka Fujii’s marimba, caxixi and djembe. The song expands beyond the prison cell of Steve Biko into a broader call for justice, and its everything-all-at-once vibe comes off less like flimsy fusion than a fleeting capture of global consensus.

By phone from her home in Northern California, Fujii, 48, describes her experience performing with Silkroad as a “life-changing” contrast to the more traditional chamber ensembles of the classical world.

“What music is for me has become a completely different shape,” she says of her 13-year tenure with the group. “It used to be something I wanted to express about myself or my appreciation of the music. With Silkroad, music has become a medium for me to be connected to people. It’s been a complete shift.”

It was in this spirit of crisscrossing connectivity that Giddens found the inspiration for “American Railroad,” a multiyear initiative that seeks to tell the stories of the immigrant laborers who constructed the transcontinental railroad – Indigenous and Black Americans and immigrants from Ireland, China, Japan and elsewhere. In painting “a more accurate picture of the global diasporic origin of the American Empire,” as the project website puts it, Giddens is also hoping to reveal why American music sounds the way it does, and give credit where credit’s due.

“The economic powerhouse that America became after the transcontinental was connected, it’s all on the back of the people who built it, the land it went through, the folks whose cultures were forever altered by this economic engine,” Giddens says. “What we’re trying to do is to remind people that not all progress is good – things are nuanced, things are ambiguous. Let’s acknowledge how it was built.”

In addition to the tour and a forthcoming album, “American Railroad” will include site-specific visual installations, residencies at universities, a documentary series, a children’s book and curricular materials for use by educators and the public. Over the past three years, participating Silkroad musicians have been gathering research and making visits to primary sites in the construction of the railroad: New York City, San Francisco, Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. These visits culminated in a series of Train Station Trios, open musical workshops of ensembles assembled from various Silkroad members and local scholars.

“I had a couple of really strong notions and ideas and directions that I thought we should go in,” Giddens says of the project’s development. “But ultimately this is an ensemble, and it’s really all about the discovery of each individual musician and how they connect.”

The tour will include three new commissioned works by pipa player Wu Man, jazz artist Cécile McLorin Salvant and Native musician Suzanne Kite, as well as new arrangements by Fujii, Giddens and fellow Silkroad member Maeve Gilchrist. Fujii’s piece – “Tamping Song” – is partially based on the early 20th-century “hammer songs” sung by railroad workers in Japan and is Fujii’s tribute to the large number of Japanese immigrants who worked the lines, especially following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Giddens offers an interpretation of another hammer song, “Swannanoa Tunnel,” its tune trailing through the show, tangled up in bluegrass and folk, but inextricably linked to Black railroad workers from her home state of North Carolina.

The idea is to tell the story of one journey by way of another, to sharpen multiple histories by blurring the lines between them, and to construct a new model of exchange that, like the railroad, stands a chance of bringing people together. Just be prepared – the night will probably end, as Giddens prefers, with some sort of singalong.

“You don’t have to just be the audience,” she says. “You can also be the creators. You can be the artists, too. It has to start with us playing a tune, right?”

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American Railroad: A Musical Journey of Reclamation, featuring the Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens, is at George Mason University on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.



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