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American Railroad
: Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens at Zellerbach Auditorium

American Railroad
: Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens at Zellerbach Auditorium

Courtesy TW Huang

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"American Railroad"
Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens
Zellerbach Auditorium
Berkeley, California
November 17, 2023

The University of California Berkeley's Cal Performances presents many diverse, innovative shows featuring a wide variety of global music and dance throughout the year at the university's Zellerbach Auditorium, a venerable venue that has hosted a wide variety of talent ranging from Wynton Marsalis to Seun Kuti and Africa 80. So it is not surprising that they would host the groundbreaking Silkroad Ensemble, which packed a Friday night show. Silkroad, a music and arts organization founded by Yo-Yo Ma, has a mission to promote cross-cultural collaboration. It launched the the "American Railroad" project in 2021, and this concert and tour represents but one portion of a multi-year, multi-platform project commemorating the different cultures that participated in the Transcontinental Railroad's construction. An informative booklet is available online and given out at shows, and documentary production is underway. Classroom seminars are taught. The theme was "the four main pillars of people of the railroad": Indigenous, Irish, Black American, and Chinese.

Throughout her career, multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has been full of surprises. One of three members of the "postmodern string band," Sankofa Strings—which morphed into the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, she has gone on to a successful career as a dynamic solo artist. Her first release, produced by T Bone Burnett was Tomorrow Is My Turn (Nonesuch Records, 2015). Since then, four more CDs (two with current partner Francesco Turrisi) and two EPs have followed. Her Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways, 2019), a collaboration with three other Black female musicians, was universally praised. Giddens became the musical director of the 2023 Ojai Music Festival. She is the host of the half-hour PBS series My Music with Rhiannon Giddens, which is filmed with guest artists at various Southern locales. And she has recently co-written an opera that was presented by San Francisco Opera in fall 2023. Now, Giddens has been appointed to the post of Artistic Director for the Silkroad Project Inc. Founded in 2000, Silkroad spends millions of dollars annually on educational programs and other endeavors. The nonprofit runs training workshops and residency programs in public schools, universities, prisons, and indigenous and refugee communities.

The Silkroad Ensemble is no ordinary group. A loose collective of over 50 musicians, composers, arrangers, visual artists and storytellers from all over the world, the ensemble, in its present version, comprises 13 virtuoso musicians representing American indigenous, African, American classical, Black American, Japanese, Chinese, and other musical cultures. A staggering array of instruments were present onstage. Participants included pipa legend Wu Man; frame drum and accordion performer Turrisi; and two accomplished musicians playing Japanese instruments: innovative percussionist Haruka Fujii, and shakuhachi and taiko drum master Kaoru Watanabe. Guest artist and Chinese native Yazhi Guo is a master of the suona, guanzi, assorted Chinese percussion, and the polyphonic hulusi which he invented. Visuals assembled by Camilla Tassi, of art and historical photographs enhanced the performance throughout.

The music created by these musicians flowed together impressively well, given differences between cultures and instruments. At times it was hard to determine where one tune ended and another convened. This flow seems natural, as the silk road of yore connected cultures while spreading musical instruments and influences.

Providing a dramatic start to the evening, Pura Fé (Pura Fé Antonia "Toni" Crescioni) blew a conch shell and intoned while playing her acoustic lap slide guitar; Giddens added vocal harmonies. Turrrisi's frame drum first added to the mix; then the other percussionists joined in. The tune, "Canoe Song,"created by Fé to honor the waterways of her North Carolina Tuscaroran ancestors, was her version of "Swannanoa Tunnel." A late 19th-century Black chain gang song, recorded by the Appalachian folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford, "Swannanoa Tunnel" had its origins as a Black laborers' work song but was later appropriated by working class whites. It references the troubled construction of the North Carolina Railroad's Swannanoa Tunnel which claimed some 125-300 prisoners' lives. They were either shot by prison guards or died in cave-ins, accidents involving explosives, or from disease. It was the first of four versions played during the performance.

A cello solo from Karen Ouzounian began "Far Down Far." A composition by legendary harpist Maeve Gilchrist, the tune modifies "The Far Down Farmer," a two-part jig; "far down" is how Protestant Irish workers on the Transcontinental Railroad would refer to less-well-heeled Irish Catholics. The story behind the participation of these Irish immigrants comes with a tremendous amount of drama. By way of example, in 1869 disenfranchised Irish workers kidnapped Dr. Thomas Durant, the vice president of the Union Pacific Railway, in order to secure their back wages.

Next up was Giddens' version of "Swannanoa Tunnel" renamed "Steel-Driving Man." It pays tribute to "the ghosts of the hard working [Black] men who gave their lives." Percussionists punctuated each phrase—an auditory tribute to the mallet strikes of chain gangs of yore.

Sandeep Das gave his all for a tabla solo on his "Rela," which is a Hindu word meaning "rail" or "train." It is believed that their modern versions were created to mimic the sound of rails. There are clear parallels between the building of the American Transcontinental Railroad and the development of the British-instituted Indian railway system. A unique commissioned score, "Railroad Dreams," by Lakota composer (Suzanne) Kite, followed. A visual, created by forming band members' dreams into a configuration using Sadie Red Wing's "Lakota Shape Kit," was projected overhead as the group played.

Man's "Rainy Day," based on a popular melancholic Cantonese folk tune, followed with only eight ensemble members onstage. The tone of mournful lyrics, sung by Giddens as she played her banjo, reflected a mother and wife's lament that her husband was working as a migrant overseas on the railroad. Man maintains that the dialogue between pipa and banjo "brings an artistic charm that is both similar and unique." And it did.

Niwei Tsumbu's "Milimo" (Lingala for "spirits"), the final tune before intermission, was inspired by the Zande harp which was a popular instrument in the Congo before the guitar supplanted it during the 1940s. The tune combined haunting vocals with fast-paced Indian chanting and tabla, along with accordion from Turrisi.

Reconvening after the intermission, the ensemble launched into yet another version of "Swannanoa Tunnel." This one, arranged by Man, again centered on the anguish and loneliness experienced by Guangdong wives and mothers whose husbands were overseas (over 10,000 were, and, by 1868, over 90% of the workforce was composed of Chinese immigrants). The piece began with masterful suomi playing from Gu and went on to incorporate Man's pipa, Japanese flute and percussion and taiko drumming.

Then it was time for some Southern-tinged blues from composer Cecile McLorin Salvant whose specially commissioned "Have You Seen My Man?," dubbed "a hymn for voices, percussion and pipa," concluded with soaring four-part harmonies from cellist Ouzounian, Giddens, and violinists Mazz Swift and Michi Wiancko. A quartet version of "Swannanoa Tunnel" followed.

Watanabe's "Fugaku Sanju Rokkei," an improvisatory piece based on Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai's famed series "Thirty Six Views of Mt. Fuji," was next before it was time for Fuji's "Tamping Song,"a tribute to the more than 13,000 Japanese immigrant railway workers employed on this continent by 1906.

Fé's "Mahk Jchi," a forceful elegy composed by the Native American women's group Ulali (which she founded), has lyrics that combine words from the Tutelo and Saponi languages once spoken by members of the Ohio Valley's Sioux. The English translation reads: "Our hearts are full and our minds are good/Our ancestors come and give us strength/Stand tall, sing, dance and never forget who you are/Or where you come from."

Violinist Swift's "Oh Shout," with its cries of "Glory's in my soul," concluded the evening. Before the encore, Giddens introduced the band and spoke about the horrific level of violence we humans are perpetrating all over the planet, about the difficulties she has faced struggling with her voice on the tour. But, she told us, she was fortunate enough to have the band members, who are her friends, have her back. It all ended with "John Henry," which featured a cello solo from Ouzounian, Japanese flute, spirited vocals and Giddens pairing off with Fé to dance exuberantly stage center.

If you missed them on this tour rest assured the ensemble has staying power: A 2024 tour is planned, and they will be guests on the next season of the PBS series My Music with Rhiannon Giddens,

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