Abu Dhabi Festival 2017: Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble unite cultures through music

Formed in 2000 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the ensemble foster the noble ambition of bringing people of different nationalities and cultures together through music.

A performance by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Khalid Al Busaidi / ROHM
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If you thought becoming a rocket scientist was hard, try being a percussion soloist. It is something American musician Joseph Gramely entertained for a hot five minutes in his youth, until he realised demand for percussion soloists wasn’t exactly high.

“Right now in the world, there may be less than you can name on one hand,” he says. But, perhaps, fate did him a favour. Instead of forging a path on his own, he has embraced a collaboration.

These days, the 56-year-old spends much of his time in his dual role of associate artistic director and performer with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble – which will perform alongside the celebrated cellist at the Emirates Palace Auditorium on Friday – as part of Abu Dhabi Festival.

Formed in 2000 by Yo-Yo Ma – “the most empathetic and open musician”, according to Gramely – the ensemble foster a noble ambition of bringing people of different nationalities and cultures together through music.

“I think the speed at which globalisation has been happening is what’s very new and unique in our time,” he says. “And the mission of Silk Road is to [encourage] empathy and understanding of other cultures through music, through communication and trust.”

As one of the group’s founders, Gramley says there will be 12 performers at the Emirates Palace gig, and their nationalities include Syrian, Japanese, Russian, American, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese and Canadian.

Like all Silk Road gigs, many of the instrumental combinations may not have been heard together on stage before and that’s the whole point. “We’ve developed a sort of family atmosphere within the ensemble,” he says.

“[It is made up of] musicians who have never met before and whose instruments have never met before. Instruments that really weren’t thought of as being able to play together can now communicate through music. And musicians can become friends without saying a word.”

It is not hard to see the metamessage in all of this. But instead of being bogged down by lofty ideals, the group’s concerts are actually lots of fun.

With six albums and a documentary (20 Feet from Stardom, directed by Academy Award-winner Morgan Neville) to their credit, they have also notched up several awards, including a Grammy.

There are two pieces that will be performed at the Emirates Palace Auditorium, which Gramley is particularly keen to talk about. The first, called Wedding, is by the Syrian composer and clarinettist Kinan Azmeh.

Gramley explains that Azmeh’s music was always important for the group, but when the composer and band member was locked out of the US earlier this year following the travel ban, it took on a stronger resonance.

The piece represents what happens when a Syrian village comes together for a wedding. “It is a celebration of bringing people together,” says Gramley.

The second piece springs from a darker territory. Composed by the Grammy-nominated Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and inspired by the villages obliterated during the Iran-Iraq war, Silent City tells the rebirth of a metropolis that has been decimated by conflict.

However “it ends on a very positive note”, says Gramley, and represents the “joy of rebirth and revitalisation”.

“Both pieces are played by artists from all over the world,” he adds.

“Americans, Syrians, Iranians, Indians and Chinese. I think these two pieces show a wonderful example of the trust and communication and the bringing together of cultures that Yo-Yo believes so strongly in – those values that we all now hold so close to our hearts and that we try to represent through our music.”

The Silk Road Ensemble will perform at Emirates Palace Auditorium on Friday. Tickets, from Dh125, available at www.abudhabifestival.ae