Silk Road Ensemble grabs a Grammy

French born Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma to advance multicultural understanding by bringing together musicians from different nations.
PHOTO: Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Sing Me Home, the sixth album of the multinational group Silk Road Ensemble, was given the Best World Music Album award on Sunday night at the 59th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Also, a documentary by Oscar- and Emmy-winning director Morgan Neville that tells the story of the ensemble, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, received a Grammy nomination for best music film.

They were just the latest of the plaudits given to the ensemble, which was set up by French born Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma to advance multicultural understanding by bringing together musicians from different nations.

"Seventeen years on, I not only have the privilege of playing music with those world-class musicians but also have a better understanding about myself as a musician," said Wu Tong, a former leading vocalist of the Chinese rock band Lunhui, and a master of the sheng, a traditional Chinese instrument.

Wu, one of the founding members of the Silk Road Ensemble, spoke on Saturday just before catching a flight to Los Angeles.

Wu also plays other traditional Chinese wind instruments, like the bawu and suona, and sings on the album.

US banjo player Abigail Washburn sings with Wu in Chinese and English in Going Home, a song from the album that reinvents the wistful melody from a slowly moving symphonic piece by Dvorak.

Wu also performs in an arrangement of the US classic folk song Little Birdie, along with Grammy-nominated singer Sarah Jarosz.

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World-famous cellist Ma wrote on his website: "Since the very beginning, the Silk Road Ensemble has been about departure and explorations, new encounters and homecomings. The music composed, arranged, and performed by ensemble members and our friends on Sing Me Home is a tribute to how culture helps us all to meet, connect, and create something new."

Ma had previously won 17 Grammys, but his latest is his first for best world music album.

Wu said, "What I learned from my experience with the ensemble is that respect for each other is the most important basis for our co-operation. Music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people."

In 1999, Wu toured the US and met Ma, who invited him to join the ensemble. Ma started the ensemble in 1998, hoping to bring together musicians to exchange musical ideas while maintaining their own cultural heritage.

Wu comes from a prominent family of sheng makers in Beijing. He started to learn the instrument in childhood and graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing as a sheng student in 1990.

He says the opportunity to join the ensemble fulfills his wish to give the 3,000-year-old Chinese wind instrument a different sound.

Wu also played a tune titled Kuai Le (happiness) on the Yo-Yo Ma & Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace CD, which won a Grammy for best classical crossover album in 2010.

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