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May 2024
Vol. 23, No. 8

Featured Stories

Rhiannon Giddens and the Silkroad Ensemble Bring Peace and Joy Through Music

by Terry RolandNovember 2023

Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens. Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

Silk Ensemble’s American Railroad comes to the Balboa Theater this month, featuring award-winning Americana artistic director, Rhiannon Giddens. The performance will highlight the stories of people of a forgotten history. This tour aims to build new paths to peace, healing, and intercultural understanding through music.

America is the land of dreams and nightmares. It’s often said that the North American continent is a place of opportunity where, from nothing, humankind has built empires. But the nightmares are there as well in the stories of so many that have sacrificed their lives, families, and cultures in the name of progress. As the American railroad was built in the 19th century, in the telling of the story and neatly between the hidden pages, our version of history has overlooked the multitude of people who labored while they diminished under the heavy hand of a delusional manifest destiny.

But generations later, a kind of Phoenix has risen from those ashes that brings creative justice, soulful redemption, and a cultural resurrection to the light of day from the destructive flames of the past. This new musical project, American Railroad, embodies this phenomenon in the upcoming tour of international musicians. It has been a slow train coming, but the momentum has been built, thanks to Rhiannon Giddens and the unique ensemble of collaborative and revolving international musicians.

The Silkroad Ensemble is a collective of multicultural musicians, founded by Yo-Yo Ma, in 1998, to encourage an artistic and cultural exchange through music.

As migration and immigration in North America expanded in the 19th century, people came from distant lands to be a part of this expansion. As a result, native and indigenous people unwillingly sacrificed their homelands and culture. The immigrants included Chinese, Japanese, and Irish.

Under the direction of award-winning singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens—and in the name of peace, mercy, and healing—the concert gives a voice to the songs and stories of these disenfranchised people.

Giddens’ artistic journey couldn’t have been better suited for this project. As the magazine American Songwriter has succinctly stated, “She is one of the most important musical minds currently walking the planet.”

The Silkroad Ensemble

She recently won a Pulitzer Prize in music for the opera she wrote with Michael Abels and Omar about a 19th century West African Muslim scholar who was sold into slavery in South Carolina. Giddens is one of the co-founders of the legendary Americana-roots bands, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, where she wrote, sang, and specialized in that exotic African instrument, the banjo.

She won her second Grammy in 2022 for Best Folk Album for They’re Calling Me Home, a work that could serve as a score for American Railroad history and its impact on the people who built it.

The concert captures the essence of her career, which has been focused on to bring to light the songs and stories that weave a more accurate portrayal of the oppression and opposition experienced by those without power or a voice. She has brought history to life through the love and creativity of intensely beautiful music.

One of the key musicians in the ensemble is Japanese-American Kaoru Watanabe ( Like Rhiannon Giddens and many of the musicians who have collaborated with the Silkroad Ensemble, he is immersed in the eastern and western musical traditions and innovations. His parents were post World War II immigrants, who were classically trained musicians. In his childhood he was classically trained in the United States, then followed his roots to spend a decade in Japan as an adult to develop his talent on bamboo flutes, such as the shinobue, noh, kan, ryuteki, and Japanese percussion. On stage he is dynamic, inventive, and versatile as he joins in with the Silkroad Ensemble.

During a recent interview he gave his impression of the mission of the American Railroad concert: “The idea behind the name of the ensemble is the idea that in the old days (the 15th century), the Silk Road was the place where goods, customs, and culture—including stories and music—were traded. It was a bridge between the East and the West. The American Railroad is an extension of that.” He continued, “It’s the story of how the music and rhythms were transferred, but it was not always a pretty picture. With the American Railroad, many communities were devastated by its creation. In this project, we’re trying to see all sides of the story.”

While the advantages were many in the movement of progress from the East to the West—from the Silk Road to the American railway—the consequences of the powerless cultures who supported it have not been written into history until recently. As Watanabe sees it, “We’re telling the story from the viewpoint of those who were on the receiving end of oppression as well as celebrating who we are today as Americans.”

But how does this happen in a musical project? According to Watanabe, the souls of the people they represent through the music come alive in the early stages of research and creation. As the music comes alive—the way he describes it—their souls begin to dance. “We need this to see where the trauma was to understand where the pain, hurt, and anger come from. We recognize that, so we don’t let it happen again and find ways to heal and make right.” As Rhiannon Giddens and Kaoru Watanabe have made clear, the American Railroad Project is about finding the joy and celebration in the humanity lost in time. It is an act of peace.

Amid today’s war-torn and divisive world, peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is an act of creation that redeems, resurrects, and brings a measure of healing of past injustice, giving voice to those who have long been lost in the shadows of tragedy. The American Railroad and the Silkroad Ensemble embody this as a breathing reality.

American Railroad, Friday, November 10, Balboa Theatre, 868 4th Ave., 7:30pm.
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