by Meaghan Dodson `17
Over 2,000 years ago, a network of trade routes known as the Silk Road allowed for the flow of goods and materials throughout Europe, Africa, India, and Asia. The Silk Road, however, was not just used to exchange goods—it was also used to exchange ideas and traditions between people of different cultures.
Today, this idea of cultural exchange and learning is embodied in the Silk Road Ensemble, a musical group founded by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The goal of the group is to “explore how the arts can advance global understanding,” featuring musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Providence College welcomed The Silk Road Ensemble on Friday, January 27. The ensemble offered a workshop for students earlier in the day, and at night they performed for the PC community at a concert held in the Smith Center for the Arts.
The Ensemble was introduced by Ed Sweeney ’77, a musician/recording artist and a member of the organization. Sweeney was PC’s first music major—in fact, he even helped write PC’s program and hire its professors!
After graduating from PC, Sweeney tried to start his musical career but was met with little success. He became a salesman, and it was in this profession that he really learned how to be a musician. He was hired by the Silk Road Ensemble because he knew the financial and business aspects of the music industry, and he loves playing and work-shopping with his fellow musicians.
Sweeney encouraged the audience members to look at each new opportunity as a gift. “Allow yourself to explore all your passions and allow them to change,” he stated.
Sweeney then invited the members of the Silk Road Ensemble to share their own musical journeys, with each musician’s story being as unique as the instruments he or she plays.
Shaw Pong Liu, the Ensemble’s violinist, has been playing for over 30 years. Having spent time studying and living in Beijing, she picked up the Chinese equivalent of the violin—the erhu—which is made from the skin of pythons.
The group’s percussionist, Shane Shanahan, began his musical journey playing the drums in local garage bands. He was trained in classical styles of percussion but, wanting to experiment with different sounds, he decided to collect and learn percussion instruments from around the world.
Sandeep Das is a Grammy-nominated tabla player. He learned his art in India, where he lived with and studied under a guru for 12 years. The guru taught him how to draw rhythms from nature, and although he was never formally taught how to read music, Das can play thousands of compositions from memory.
Finally, Yang Wei is the Ensemble’s pipa player. He revealed that, although the instrument’s silk strings and bamboo frets are testaments to over 2,000 years of Chinese history, the pipa was originally from the Middle East and brought over to China via trade routes.
Together, these musicians create distinctive and original music that speaks to the different cultures from which they draw their inspiration.
Reflecting on both the workshop and the concert, TJ Harper, chairperson of the music department, stated, “We were fortunate that the Silk Road Ensemble could come share their stories. The Development of Western Civilization program teaches students a more Western perspective, so this experience with the East contributes to students’ musical growth and adds cultural and artistic depth to the College.”