Music and Multiculturalism: The Silk Road Project

“My musical journeys have reminded me that the interactions brought about by globalization don’t just destroy culture; they can create new culture and invigorate and spread traditions that have existed for ages.” Yo-Yo Ma

Concerts are not quiet affairs, at least, not the ones that I prefer. To some people, a performance means an auditorium, a chair and an embossed pamphlet. To me, Chicago’s free concerts in the park series means an opportunity to spread out a picnic blanket, congregate with people from all walks of life and share in the rich culture of the city’s melodies and harmonies. Crammed together on the lawn with a hodgepodge of foods and drinks, these concerts are an opportunity to bring people together through a shared love of the cultural universal that we call music.

Yo-Yo Ma, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Silk Road Project, a multicultural arts organization founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, has a vision to connect artists and audiences through music.  Taking its namesake from the historic Silk Road trade network, the project is a vehicle for innovation and learning through the arts. In the summer of 2006, Ma chose Chicago to be the first city in the world to collaborate on a yearlong partnership with the organization. Silk Road Chicago was born and to celebrate, the Silk Road Ensemble and Ma performed a free concert in Millennium Park that I attended. The Ensemble, which includes musicians, storytellers, and visual artists, commissions new works and adapts traditional pieces with a multicultural flair in order to bring listeners close to the music and closer to each other.

Map of the Silk Route, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes in Eurasia that promoted the sharing of ideas, art, science, and study for almost two-thousand years. Founded in 1998, the Silk Road Project is an art, cultural and educational organization that seeks to use the Silk Road “as a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.” [1] The non-profit looks for ways to broaden listeners understanding of cultural differences through the development of new music, performances by the Silk Road Ensemble, and educational workshops for students. Through the use of music, Yo-Yo Ma has brought together over sixty artists from twenty different countries and countless audience members to share in collaboration and cultural exploration.

Millennium Park, Jay Pritzker Pavillion, Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Why music? Music has the power to bridge boundaries. It has the power to unite cultures. Diverse sounds from around the world are combined together by the artists in the Silk Road Ensemble to complement each other, not compete with each other. I remember lying down on the lawn of Millennium Park and letting the music from the Silk Road Ensemble glide over me. Families, couples, young, old, black, white, and everything in between came from their separate part of the cities and their separate lives to share these pieces of art together. As I looked around the park, I felt that people were drawn to the music because they saw themselves represented in a new way.

With its educational partnerships, museum residencies, and Ensemble performances the Silk Road Project has become a catalyst for social change. As people listened to that concert in Chicago they learned about the world around them and about themselves. The cultural exchange that occurred on the Silk Road is alive and well today as new traditions are being created and the globalization of cultures is cherished. How can museums and other cultural institutions harness this multiculturalism and create new programs and exhibits that bring people together?


One thought on “Music and Multiculturalism: The Silk Road Project

  1. Cate, this is a really great project. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I passed it along to my band director friend and she is going to look into using it with her students!

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