Few folks are liable to turn handsprings at the thought of a double-CD of traditional music from East and Central Asia. It suggests a listening experience loaded with nutritional value but perilously low on the enjoyment scale. But The Silk Road (Smithsonian/Folkways) plows new ground by opening disc one with a song from Iran that is drop-dead gorgeous, with its heady mixture of santur hammered dulcimer and zarb goblet drum playing a rippling ornamented composition that moves like a dexterous Indian raga. The pleasures snowball as songs roll by that were apparently chosen for their high thrill quotient. Aygul Ulkenbaeva makes the Kazakh two-string dombra lute chug, glisten, gallop, and sing a song of honeybees on "Balbyraun." "Dance of Tamir Agha," performed by Gevorg Dabaghian on the duduk vernacular clarinet, suggests a Renaissance court bacchanal in its performance of an Armenian ritual dance. Most Japanese shakuhachi recordings on disc are blander than cornstarch and water, but Kojiro Umezaki's "Lullaby from Itsuki" will never land on a new-age anthology thanks to the buzzing, bracing blow of a hurricane trapped inside a bamboo stalk flute.
With the exception of a few selections from Japan and China, most of the songs on Silk Road flow from the Central Asian segment of the historical trade route that flourished from 200 B.C. to 1500 A.D., including Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and various other difficult to locate -stans. The material is so consistently dazzling, it immediately raises a couple of questions. How can mere humans be making these sounds, and why haven't we heard any of this before? If the first question is imponderable, the second is easy to answer. The majority of the songs on Silk Road have never been commercially released until this moment. Many come from the private collection of producer and field recordist Jean During, who traipsed geographically daunting and tourist-shy regions of Asia in search of little-known and underrecorded musical genres.
Disc one, Masters and Traditions, is devoted to court music or art music sporting a highfalutin level of refinement. Disc two, Minstrels and Lovers, is packed with comparatively ragged folk material emphasizing emotive oomph. Some songs may live up to your worst fears of folk music from the hinterlands with strident vocals, meandering tunes, scratchy fiddles, and twanging strings. But get beyond the quest for prettiness, and there's still a lot to like, including the "Jew's Harp Melody" from Kazakhstan that might as well be a Tangerine Dream synthesized rhythm track from the mid-Seventies. "Tepen Kök" showcases Kelek Kumaqay's remarkable one-person duet of end-blown olu flute and simultaneous throat-singing, resulting in an eerie polyphony. The Khakasian ensemble Sabjilar blends a plaintive melody on the spike fiddle (the earliest surviving antecedent of the modern violin) with throat-singing that evokes the windswept, barren land of Turkic horse herders. Consider it a Central Asian version of Delta blues and the strangeness begins to melt. "Mizghan-i Siyah" (Black Eyelashes) is a rousing example of the type of native music that the Taliban suppressed in Afghanistan. This exuberant Tajik festival song compares the eyelashes of a beautiful woman with the skill of an archer, though if your Tajik language skills are lacking, the high-profile singing and vernacular clarinet should get your toes tapping.
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This remarkable double-disc is one aspect of the Silk Road Project founded in 1998 by Yo-Yo Ma to study the ebb and flow of ideas among different cultures along the once well-traveled trade network. But don't confuse the Silk Road CD with Ma's similarly named traveling ensemble of Asian musicians, which reportedly deserves a disc or two of its own.
It's not too surprising that the tiny Siberian republic of Tuva would spawn a modern take on ancient Asian music. Despite Tuva's remoteness from the western world, the inimitable sound of throat-singing has invaded everything from heavy metal to new-age recordings. In the past few years, the haunting whistle of the sygyt vocal style has eclipsed the Central African pygmy yodel as electronica's most frequently sampled type of ethnic singing.
While neotraditional bands Yat-Kha and Huun-Huur-Tu have broadened the scope of throat-singing-based music with CDs that lean and lurch toward pop, Vienna-based Sainkho Namtchylak is the first Tuvan-born woman to publicly rearrange her country's folk roots. Released in Europe a year ago and slated for an October 2002 debut here on Ponderosa, Namtchylak's Stepmother City follows the footprints of Enigma, B Tribe, and other ambient artists. Airy vocals exploiting her seven-octave range waft in and out of digitized acoustic Asian instruments, pulsating keyboards, and the inevitable computer-driven rhythms. Not until the fourth cut, "Order to Survive," does she move from faux Blade Runner soundtrack fare to the sharper edge of snarls, weird warbles, and mammalian yelps to create a cabaret sound fresh from Planet Claire.
"Let the Sunshine" appealingly marries shamanism and reggae with enough originality to give lackluster English-language lyrics a pass. But "Ritual Virtuality" digs a deep pit for any record to crawl out of with a meandering opening monologue and acrobatic vocal effects whose self-indulgence might make Yoko Ono blush. Namtchylak's voice is a formidable instrument that needs to connect with stronger and more heartfelt material. The key might be embracing the in-your-face forthrightness of traditional Tuvan music rather than dulling its brightness by submerging it in recycled synthetic textures.