The Silk Road had seen a steady trickle of traders since 200 B.C., the most famous being Marco Polo, the 13th-century Venetian who first chronicled the overland journey.
The standard route ran from Xian, China, through the heart of Asia, to a port on the Mediterranean: Tyre (in todays
Lebanon), Antioch and Istanbul (Turkey), or Venice. Here, the merchants unloaded and sold whatever treasures were left after thousands of miles of rough travel. Silk Road merchants got a sixteen-hundred-year head start on sailors, who only started carving out parts of Asia for the
Portuguese in the 1600s. As recently as the 1970s, before political upheaval effectively put a roadblock across Central Asia for casual tourists, the Silk Road had been a popular trip for shoestring travelers and modern Marco Polos. Words also migrated. In virtually every language, the word for “tea” had crept westward from China, either along the Silk Road from the north,
where the natives in the local dialect said “chai,” or from the south, where we get our English “tea.” Even the English word “silk” owes its origin to the Chinese language, coming from the modern Chinese Si, which had evolved from Seres. Today in Central Asia, most people speak a Turkic language (Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazak, Tuvan, etc.), Persian (“Tajik” in Tajikistan, “Dari” in Afghanistan), Chinese, or Mongolian. There is also a strong Russian influence in ex-Soviet states. During the Crusades, Europeans brought back new instruments as well as styles: tambourines, lutes (which morphed through time into classical guitars), kanoons (the Middle Eastern zithers that spawned our modern pianos), and kamanchas (ancestors of our rebec, violin, and cello). In return, westerners introduced the violin, now one of the most common instruments on the Silk Road, from North Africa to Beijing. The Silk Road artists sometimes prefer violins to the lute, whose long neck means greater distance for the fingers to cover and thus less facility
and mobility, and whose frets make the execution of microtones more difficult. This cultural dialogue hadn’t been matched since the court of the Cordova in Moorish Spain, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish musicians played together and shared traditions. Silk Road artists play in several genres. One of the main ones is mugham (or makam) performance. Mugham, the music of the sedentary cultures of the Silk Road, is a complex form that requires years to master. It is famous for its improvisation-like jazz: the greater the master, the more complex the music. Mugham is similar in concept to Indian ragas, and in the past marathon performances would last well over an evening. Today, the fast-paced lifestyle has forced musicians to present a shorter version. One of the richest of the Silk Road musical traditions is folk music, which varies widely with the religious, linguistic, and cultural background of the musicians. The singers often use a technique called melisma, in which the singer sings one syllable of taxing several notes, as Gregorian chant. Unlike the western approach that utilizes the diaphragm for breath support,
Central Asians often rely more on their throats to sing. (Flamenco singing is the West’s closest equivalent to this technique; indeed, some scholars contend that Middle Eastern styles influenced flamenco.) Throat techniques vary over different regions. The Iranian and Azerbaijani mugham singers, for instance, call their technique “chahchah” or “jahjah,” wherein the artist is said to be imitating a nightingale. In Tuva, a remote republic in the Russian Federation, a single throat singer can make several simultaneous groaning tones, creating a wonderfully odd style that to the
uninitiated ear sounds like a one-man barbershop quartet of demented ventriloquists.
After writing his account of seventeen years on the Silk Road, Marco Polo gasped on his deathbed, “I have told only half of what I saw!” We hope that you will follow up on any interest in Central Asian history and culture that the foregoing may have sparked. Enjoy the concert.
Notes by Shahyar Daneshgar, Founder and director of the Silk Road Ensemble
& Faculty Member at Indiana University
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