Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble: Sing Me Home (CD review)

Yo-Yo Ma, cello; The Silk Road Ensemble. Sony 88875 18101 2.

Silkroad, as you probably know by now, is the nonprofit organization cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded back in 1998 to encourage a multicultural artistic exchange of study and ideas. World Music Central and The Irish Independent described Silkroad as an "arts and educational organization that connects musicians, composers, artists and audiences around the world" and "an initiative to promote multicultural artistic collaboration." Yo-Yo Ma took his inspiration "from the historical Silk Road trading routes and using the Silk Road as a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines."

Sing Me Home is the seventh album The Silk Road Ensemble have released since 2001, and if you like the kind of ethnic music they perform, you'll no doubt like this latest issue. Its producers describe it as "the companion album to the Morgan Neville documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, and they call it "the artists' most-personal album to date." Ma says the album is "a tribute to how culture helps us all to meet, connect, and create something new."

The program presents a varied assortment of world music, some of it new, most of it traditional, representing a wide variety of cultures. Here's the playlist:

  1. "Green" ("Vincent's Tune"), featuring Roomful of Teeth
  2. "O'Neill's Cavalry March," featuring Martin Hayes
  3. "Little Birdie," featuring Sarah Jarosz
  4. "Ichichila," featuring Toumani Diabaté and Balla Kouyaté
  5. "Sadila Jana," featuring Black Sea Hotel
  6. "Shingashi Song," featuring Kaoru Watanabe
  7. "Madhoushi," featuring Shujaat Khan
  8. "Wedding," featuring Dima Orsho
  9. "Going Home," featuring Abigail Washburn
10. "Cabaliño," featuring Roberto Comesaña, Anxo Pintos, and Davide Salvado
11. "St. James Infirmary Blues," featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Ward-Bergeman, and Reylon Yount
12. "If You Shall Return...," featuring Bill Frisell
13. "Heart and Soul," featuring Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter

Yo-Yo Ma
The Silkroad Ensemble varies in size and personnel depending on the nature of the material and the availability of the artists involved. In addition to the featured performers above, the players this time around include Silk Road Ensemble members Kinan Azmeh, Jeffrey Beecher, Mike Block, Shawn Conley, Nicholas Cords, Sandeep Das, Haruka Fujii, Johnny Gandelsman, Joseph Gramley, Colin Jacobsen, Eric Jacobsen, Kayhan Kalhor, Yo-Yo Ma, Jessie Montgomery, Cristina Pato, Shane Shanahan, Mark Suter, Kojiro Umezaki, Wu Man, and Wu Tong, with help from Lisa Fischer, Bill Frisell, Black Sea Hotel, Rhiannon Giddens, Sarah Jarosz, Shujaat Khan, Martin Hayes, Gregory Porter, Roomful of Teeth, Rustica, and Abigail Washington. It's a formidable group.

Because the performers are tops in their field, the music sounds immaculate. More important, they play with an infectious enthusiasm, which combined with the precision of their talents creates an atmosphere of joy throughout the proceedings.

The opening track, "Green: Vincent's Tune," arranged by Wu Man, becomes a little raucous but it's undeniably infectious, too. The following item, "O'Neill's Cavalry March," couldn't be more different, an Irish number, and just as infectious.

And so it goes.

As I say, we get a varied selection of tunes, mostly characterized by string and percussion instruments, with occasional solo and choral vocals. The ensemble's Colin Jacobsen came across "Little Birdie" while listening to a collection by Pete Seeger and loved it. "Ichichila" is another highlight of the program, a song of the Tuareg people; it's delightful.

The flawless precision of the Silk Road Ensemble ensures that every item on hand sounds better than the last. You think, my, wasn't that fun, when along comes another just as good or better. Interestingly, the songs slow down considerably as the program goes on, reaching a dirgelike state by "St. James Infirmary," and end with a sweetly flowing rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul" with Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter. The album offers one newly discovered charm after another.

Producers Johnny Gandelsman, Kevin Killen, and Cristin Canterbury Bagnall and engineers Jody Elff, Kevin Killen, and Xabier Olite recorded the album at MSR Studios and Avatar Studios in New York City, with additional recording at Zone Dolce, NYC, Africa Studio, Bamako, Mali, and Son Natural, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. Sony Music released the disc in 2016.

As with most popular albums, the engineers give us a fairly close perspective, yet it's one that displays a good deal of separation among the instruments and a reasonable amount of depth to the ensemble. Wide dynamics, strong bass, and a warm, smooth frequency balance help to produce a good, natural sound. There is nothing hard, bright, or edgy here, so expect a relaxed listening experience.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa