“…a wonderful mix of timbres…not an archeological trip, but a journey of the imagination–the modes and rhythms of the regions serve to inspire impassioned playing from marimbist Jonathan Bernard, erhu player Lan Tung, and (zheng player) Han…” – Mack Hagood, Far Eastern Audio Review, December 5, 2004
Another solid Chinese music release from Canada sparks contemplation of the American “melting pot” vs. the Canadian “mosaic.”
The truism about cultural diversity in the US versus Canada is that the former is a “melting pot” and the latter is a “mosaic.” If you’ve driven across the States since the 90s, you know that the melt has cooled and thickened into vast vistas of homogenized blandness. Shopping malls, gas stations, McMansions and link after link of endless chains with familiar names all scroll by you. For a soundtrack you get the same five flavors of Clear Channel masquerading under different call letter pseudonyms in every generiburg. Touring with a band around this country, I longed for the quirky, regional America I met in the car trips of my youth. If this is the melting pot, please pass the mosaic.
I may have spent years in Asia, but I’m not such a weird American that I know much about Canada, let alone having been there. I can’t say with any authority that the “mosaic of cultures” concept for life in the New World does better in practice than the melting pot, but I’ve been getting some hopeful signs in the form of Chinese music CDs. First I got zheng duo Mei Han and Randy Raine Reusch’s Distant Wind. This time it’s Road to Kashgar by another Mei Han group, Orchid Ensemble. Like Distant Wind, this disc combines a solid rooting in traditional Chinese music with a willingness to experiment, a fact evidenced by the group’s erhu, zheng and marimba lineup. This turns out to be a wonderful mix of timbres.
Road to Kashgar takes its inspiration from the Silk Road, a symbol that seems to loom large in the minds of many artists these days. Beginning with three pieces commissioned from composer Moshe Denburg and continuing with a number of traditional works, the disc rolls across China, Central Asia the Middle East and India. This is not an archeological trip, but a journey of the imagination–the modes and rhythms of the regions serve to inspire impassioned playing from marimbist Jonathan Bernard, erhu player Lan Tung, and Han, not painstakingly “authentic” recreations. Take “Yaribon” for example, a sinified arrangement of an Ashkenazi sacred song–Orchid Ensemble’s creative fusion-tribute to a lineage of Persian Jews who’ve lived in China for a millennium.
In reference to the many trade routes that made up the Silk Road, the CD notes conjure “an abundant multicultural landscape filled with music, dance, food and festivity.” Certainly this is an idealization, but it is just the sort of mosaic image we could use on a continent threatened by monoculture. The highways of Canada may not be the road to Kashgar, but they seem to boast some interesting musical crossroads.