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ARTICLE: Silkroad’s American Railroad Concert Takes You on a Powerful Ride

Mimi Sells

Vanguard Culture

October 17, 2023


If you are a fan of the Grammy-Winning Silkroad Ensemble and its multicultural musical explorations, get ready for American Railroad, coming to San Diego for one night. Part of the La Jolla Music Society’s 2023-24 Season, the concert will be held at the Balboa Theatre downtown on November 10.

Imagine being on a journey on the Transcontinental Railroad across the American heartland, traversing not just miles but decades of our history. Discover the music of the often unsung communities who helped build the railroad. That’s the journey the Silk Road Ensemble and their Pulitzer Prize-winning Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens invite you to experience with this new program.

According to Giddens, American Railroad project has been years in the making.  “We wanted to shed light on those who have been erased or overlooked throughout American history and merge it with Silkroad’s unique ability to amplify voices from a multitude of backgrounds and cultures.”

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 and was transformative in its impact on American life. It enabled a coast to coast trip in one week that used to take months. It fostered the transport of goods and ideas across the continent; it triggered the growth of cities and towns along its path; and it brought vast riches to the companies that built it.

Rather than focus on these beneficiaries, “American Railroad” unearths and elevates the stories of the people who actually built the railroad and whose lives were most impacted by it: the African American, Chinese, Indigenous, Japanese, Irish, and other immigrant communities whose contributions have been largely ignored in our history.

The Silk Road Ensemble is taking “American Railroad” on a multi-city U.S. tour that will include educational and site specific activities related to our railroad history. The musical program includes three new commissions by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Suzanne Kite, and Silkroad artist Wu Man plus re-imagined arrangements by Giddens and fellow Silkroad artists Haruka Fujii and Maeve Gilchrist.

We asked Wu Man, the world’s premier Pipa virtuoso, to answer a few questions about this new concert program. Wu Man is an acclaimed soloist, educator, and composer who gives her ancient, lute-like instrument a new role in both traditional and contemporary music.

Why do you think American Railroad is so important for us to hear now?

The American Railroad project is important because it seeks to uncover untold stories and amplify the voices of communities who played a significant, yet often overlooked, role in building the Transcontinental Railroad. This includes Indigenous and African Americans, and Chinese, Irish, and Japanese immigrant workers. Their contributions have been historically erased. As a new immigrant, I feel it’s especially important for traditions to be passed down to the younger generations so they can embrace their history and understand where they came from.

What was most difficult in creating this program? Or what was a musical piece or historical discovery that deeply surprised you along the way?

This was a challenging yet rewarding journey. For three years we researched, visited sites, and gave music workshops across the country. Rhiannon Giddens initiated the program, but everyone created a new work inspired by railroad history, honoring our past.

Many of the early Chinese immigrants were from the Canton region, now called Guangdong. I grew up listening to a lot of Cantonese music, opera, and folk songs. This was the music that was passed down by the railroad workers. My piece is inspired by Cantonese traditional folk music that early railroad workers brought from their homeland. I composed for a full ensemble using mixed instruments including Chinese and Japanese wind instruments, Western strings, guitar, and percussion. The pipa (my instrument) reflects a female voice throughout the piece, but there is also a vocal line in the style of Cantonese opera chanting. It was my first time writing for this kind of ensemble.

What makes the Silkroad Ensemble so successful? 

Silkroad’s success comes from bringing together such varied global musical voices. Our music celebrates diverse cultures and traditions and gives an equal voice to all its musicians, which I think resonates with many people. As a founding member of the ensemble, invited by my friend Yo-Yo Ma more than 20 years ago, I am lucky to have seen this group grow and develop in new ways with many different faces over the years. It’s an honor to be part of Silkroad’s history while still moving the ensemble forward.

More about the Silkroad Ensemble

Yo-Yo Ma conceived Silkroad in 1998 as a model for cultural collaboration across ideas, traditions, and  borders. Bringing together dozens of musicians from the countries comprising the ancient Silk Road travel route and beyond, they created a new musical language that celebrated the power of difference by exploring what happens when strangers meet.

Today, Silkroad is both a touring ensemble and a social impact organization sparking cultural collaboration and supporting high quality arts education to help build a more hopeful and inclusive world.

For more information and tickets

The La Jolla Music Society will present American Railroad at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego on Friday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. For more information on the Silkroad Ensemble See