Rhiannon Giddens’s American Railroad, via virtuosity and American cultures, extends the Silk Road

United StatesUnited States Various, American Railroad: Silkroad Ensemble / Rhiannon Giddens (artistic director). Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 17.11.2023. (HS)

Scene from American Railroad © Matthew TW Huang

Silkroad Ensemble: Rhiannon Giddens (banjo/vocals), Mazz Swift (violin/vocals), Wu Man (pipa), Sandeep Das (tabla), Haruka Fujii (percussion), Shawn Conley (bass), Karen Ouzounian (cello/vocals), Kaoru Watanabe (Japanese flutes/percussion), Michi Wiancko (violin)

Guest artists: Pura Fé (voice, steel guitar), Francesco Turrisi (frame drums/accordion), Niwel Tsumbu (guitar), Yazhi Guo (suona)

When cellist Yo-Yo Ma conceived Silkroad in 1998, the idea was to bring virtuosic musicians of disparate cultures together to create something new. The model was the exchange of ideas and traditions that occurred along the historic Silk Road, which stretched from Eastern Asia to Western Europe.

No road leads from there to North America, but that didn’t stop Rhiannon Giddens, the polymath musical artist to whom Ma passed the baton as artistic director of the ensemble last year. Silkroad always comprised a rotating cast of musicians as it toured the world, so why not include artists representing the diverse cultures of the United States? The result, American Railroad, layers the music of various ethnic groups, which we used to call ‘minorities’, who provided the labor to build the transcontinental railroad in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Rhiannon Giddens sings and plays fiddle with Mazz Swift (left) and Michi Wiancko © Matthew TW Huang

The exhilarating results filled Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley with jaw-dropping artistry, beauty and remarkable freshness, as musicians from China, India, Japan, the American South and indigenous cultures came together to play with dazzling proficiency, each contributing a different hue to the palette.

Appropriately, the program began with a song created by Tuscarora tribe descendent Pura Fé, who sang it in a duet with Giddens to honor the indigenous people whose land the railroad traversed. That led to an Irish jig, deconstructed, its elements rearranged by Maeve Gilchrist into a pitch-perfect musical evocation of a train engine building up steam. (Irish immigrants were among the first laborers to work building the railroad.)

‘Swannanoa Tunnel’, an African-American work song, was next, and it became a recurring theme for the rest of the performance, often introducing individual pieces. In one gorgeous moment, violinists Michi Wiancko and Mazz Swift, cellist Karen Ouzounian and bassist Shawn Conley transformed it into a classical string quartet.

Against projected historical scenes of laborers at work on the construction, each member of the ensemble had solo opportunities and exchanges, sometimes improvised, with other musicians. Each one seemed to top whatever had preceded it.

On the Asian side, Sandeep Das delivered a compact tour of what his tablas could do in a classical Indian rela, coaxing out melodies and complex rhythms in a tour-de-force solo performance. Not coincidentally, rela translates as ‘rail’ or ‘train’, and calls to mind the rough, daunting work needed to span both India and the United States with railroads.

At other times Chinese reed instruments and tropes featured in Yazhi Guo’s artistry on suona and sheng. An arresting Japanese drum solo by Haruka Fujii dazzled with its musicality as it built to a big climax.

Two highlights demonstrated the breadth and depth of these musicians.

Swift’s voice and the deft decorations of Wu Man on the pipa (Chinese guitar) made magic with ‘Have You Seen My Man’, a ballad of a woman praising her lost lover, written for Silkroad by the extraordinary jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. The music expanded into a full-scale hymn with the rich harmonies of marimba and tuned percussion by Haruka Fujii. That song could easily become a jazz standard.

Pipa artist and composer Wu Man’s adaptation of ‘Rainy Day’, a traditional folk tune in Guangdong in southern China, paired her unique touch on the pipa with Giddons’s velvety voice and proficiency on banjo to create moments of sheer beauty.

Most strikingly avant-garde was ‘Wíhaŋblapi Mázačhaŋku’ (or ‘Railroad Dreams’) by the Oglala Lakota composer Kite. In workshops, Silkroad members translated their dreams into a graphic, using a Lakota shape kit to act as the score. Distinctive, improvised percussion sequences flowed from the graphic’s various shapes, which circled back to a central figure, the music growing with layered dissonances. It got a strong response from the sold-out audience.

Swift’s ‘Oh Shout!’, a Gospel-chorus writ large, brought the proceedings to a final climax, its rhythms and joyfulness creating a landing-place after so many pieces inspired by cultural struggles.

An unnamed encore started with a country fiddle tune led by Giddens that served as a launch pad for brief solos by each of the musicians, a fitting conclusion to an evening of highly distinctive and rewarding music.

Harvey Steiman

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