Saturday, March 16, 2013


E.J. Thomas Hall
March 14
Cleveland Museum of Art
March 15

Yo-Yo Ma anchors a meeting of East and West.

For all the amenities that northeast Ohio offers, it can be an achingly provincial place. So the trade winds that blew through this past weekend were a welcome change, bringing an invigorating infusion of international sounds.

Nearly 3,000 people jammed E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron on Thursday night to hear Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a traveling caravan that serves up a spicy mix of players and music from the legendary trade route. The program reached from Japan to Western Europe, giving the audience a chance to see exotic instruments like the tabla (Indian drum), sheng (Chinese mouth organ), kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle), shakuhachi (Japanese flute), pipa (Chinese lute) and gaita (Galician bagpipe).

Many of the musicians playing those instruments are headliners in their own right. The 15-member lineup in the current touring version of the Ensemble includes Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso kamancheh player; Sandeep Das, an internationally recognized tabla master; Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen; and the amazing Cristina Pato, a classically trained pianist who doubles on the gaita, which she handles like a rock star. Yo-Yo Ma has not only the genius to assemble groups of this caliber, but the generosity to stay in the background during their performances, giving other stars a chance to shine (he introduced himself to the audience as “the other cellist” in the group).

The concert opened with Side In Side Out, a warmup piece that gives the band a chance to do what it does best: set a groove, then work it as background for soloists. Kojiro Umezaki (on shakuhachi) and Yang Wei (on pipa) offered a fine duet, carefully nuanced and uncommonly detailed. Atashgah was like a sonic trip to another world, featuring an evocative interplay of Eastern and Western strings and a haunting solo by Kalhor. A suite of Roma (gypsy) songs was less successful, almost too erudite for its own good – well-informed and smartly played, but lacking the fervor that characterizes authentic Romani music.

Pato and gaita.
The second half opened with Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, composed for the Ensemble by jazz pianist Vijay Iyer as an extended jam with rotating solos. Pato was mesmerizing, starting on the piano and segueing to the gaita to trade some tasty licks with Wei. Umezaki then narrated the Japanese folk tale Tsuru no Ongaeshi (Repayment from a Crane), supplemented by musical improvisation on the shakuhachi, cello and percussion. The closing suite from Book of Angels by John Zorn was short on the promised melodies but good clap-along fun, with the ensemble carrying the energy over to a brief encore with a nifty duet by Kalhor and Das.

The Silk Road Ensemble is a rare and unlikely combination of elements: a pop group with the training and depth of a classical orchestra (sans horns); a big band that plays with the sensitivity of a string quartet; an esoteric assemblage that makes foreign ideas and sounds accessible to a mainstream audience. And unlike other supergroups, this one makes an effort to establish a rapport with its audience, which responded with a standing ovation. International flavors never went down so easy.

Memo to Yo-Yo Ma: The next musician you should recruit for the Ensemble is Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, who gave a dazzling performance at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday night. This is the first opportunity American audiences have had to see Shamma in more than a decade, as he suspending touring in the U.S. during the invasion and occupation of his homeland. It was well worth the wait.

Shamma appeared with his six-man ensemble Al-Oyoun, which combines Western instruments (two violins, contrabass) with ancient Arabic instruments: the qanun, a flat board with strings, akin to a zither; the nay, a cane flute; and the riqq, a small tambourine with cymbals. The oud, which looks like a guitar with a bulbous body and bent neck, is a forerunner of the European lute, sans frets. It typically has six strings; Shamma sometimes uses eight.

Reinventing Arabic music.
CMA’s Massoud Saidpour lauded Shamma’s “extraordinarily fresh, electric sound” in his introduction, and he was not exaggerating. In developing what he calls Arab Chamber Music, Shamma has infused traditional Arabic sounds with Western tempos and techniques, and reached back to Early Islamic music (roughly 800-1200 AD) for melodic inspiration. To Western ears, the result is an Arabic base with layers of progressive jazz, Spanish guitar and an occasional rock riff.

Shamma opened with a solo that showcased his signature style: blazing fingerwork, innovative arrangements, driving rhythms and dramatic breaks. Over the course of the evening he used standard techniques like vibrato, and unique approaches like playing one-handed on the neck. It was a breathtaking display by a musician who not only has complete command of his instrument, but has expanded its range and possibilities. In one song, Shamma would weave intricate atmospherics; in the next, he could have been playing blues slide guitar.

Most of the songs followed a standard Western format of establishing a melody or theme, then filling the midsection with solos and improv phrases traded between players, giving them a chance to show their considerable skills. Hany ElBadry got an incredibly rich sound out of his diminutive nay, at times calling to mind Herbie Mann. Violinists ElGhandour Hussein and Said Zaki invoked the enchantments of Arabian Nights, embellished in vivid colors by qanun player Saber AbdelSattar. Keeping it all moving with a rhythmic bottom were riqq player Amro Mostafa and bassist Miles Jay (an American who studied in Egypt).

Shamma introduced the songs with Arabic titles, drawing applause from a sizable Mideast contingent in the audience. Afterward, enthusiastic fans stood in line to meet Shamma, who smiled and graciously posed for pictures with them. If that spirit colored all Western-Mideastern relations, the world would be a much better – and better-sounding – place.

For more on the Silk Road Ensemble players and instruments:

Many videos of Naseer Shamma are posted on YouTube. Here’s one:

Silk Road Ensemble photos: Todd Rosenberg/Sony BMG Masterworks

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