I’ve recently been reading the book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. It’s a far-reaching reworking of world history through the lens of the Silk Road, a series of hugely lucrative trade routes that defined global culture for thousands of years. The book’s changing how I view history, from the realization that the conflict between the “Western World” and Iran dates back to ancient Rome, to the idea that even Vikings were hugely influenced by Middle Eastern culture. The book’s full of fascinating side journeys and ideas, and it got me thinking that it would be fun to do a run along the Silk Road to find new music today. There are already great organizations and bands presenting music of the Silk Road (for example, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has multiple albums out and the Aga Khan Institute’s partnership with Smithsonian Folkways has yielded a host of Central Asian discovery albums), but I had great fun trolling through Bandcamp looking for new music from the countries that traditionally were part of the Silk Road. Of all today’s digital music services, Bandcamp has one of the best search functions, making it easy to search by country (then by genre), tradition, even by musical instrument. Try it out for yourself, but don’t forget to support these great artists directly on Bandcamp Friday!
Long before Italy’s nation states were consolidated into one country in the 19th century, the traders of Genoa and Venice were global powerhouses, basically sovereign countries in their own rights. They were key traders traveling the Silk Road and bringing back goods from the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia, and China. There’s not a lot of Italian traditional music on Bandcamp, but pianist and accordionist Francesco Turrisi has some great and adventurous albums. He’s best known perhaps for his work with his musical partner Rhiannon Giddens (the two turned in a great album together this year), but he’s also created some groundbreaking groups of his own. This 2020 EP from his band Zahr is a great example. Zahr are known for their work combining Italian traditional music with Mediterranean traditions and Arabic music traditions. On this EP they also feature the little known chitarra battente, an old kind of metal strung guitar native to Italy’s southern reaches. Of note, Turrisi and Giddens’ 2021 album, They’re Calling Me Home, also features two lovely Italian folk songs, “Si Dolce è l’Tormento” and “Nenna Nenna”. If you’re not familiar with Turrisi’s Italian folk background or his far-reaching collaborations, his Bandcamp is a great place to start.
BONUS: It’s not on Bandcamp unfortunately, but Southern Italian band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino had an absolutely fascinating album of traditional music that came out this year. Hailing from Puglia, in Italy’s “boot”, the album’s a one-band Silk Road of its own, featuring a collaboration with South Asian global band Red Baraat. It’s a blast too, full of percussive vocals, heavy beats, and wild fiddling.
Bab L’ Bluz – Nayda
Morocco may seem a bit off the beaten path of the Silk Road, but in fact it was long a key point of trade between the Middle East and Europe, tying the European Mediterranean with the North African Mediterranean in a lucrative trade circle. French-Moroccan band Bab L’ Buz understands this cross-cultural milieu well, fusing French rock and blues with Moroccan Gnawa music. While North African Tuareg music is one of the more popular North African traditions on the world stage today, Morocco’s religious Gnawa trance music has been a popular crossover hit for years now, particularly for Gnawa artist Hassan Hakmoun. Centered on the glorious vocals of Yousra Mansour, Bab L’ Buz unusually utilizes a French guembri player, Brice Bottin, though Mansour plays awisha, a small lute, throughout. The guembri provides the rolling trance basslines of Gnawa music; it’s a skin-covered lute from North Africa that looks somewhat like a larger version of the West African n’goni. These basslines, coupled with the clashing percussion cymbals is an unmistakable sound in Gnawa music, and though Bab L’ Buz update the traditions quite a bit, there’s no mistaking the glory of their source.
BONUS: Bandcamp’s full of great old reissues and this new version of a cassette tape from the late 1990s of Gnawa master musician Maalem Mahmoud Gania is no exception. Gania played with everyone from Pharoah Sanders to Indonesian and Cuban master musicians, but this old cassette is full of unadorned greatness.
For centuries, Turkey was at the core of the Silk Road, mitigating trade between the East and West at the perfect crossroads between both worlds. Though Turkey’s not quite as centrally located globally today as it was in the old days, it’s surprising how often Turkish culture pops up in the global feed. It’s often in service to viral videos, either the smoothness of Turkish restaurateurs like Salt Bae or CZN Burak, or this strangely compelling video of Turkish folk music that keeps popping up in my YouTube. Aside from these viral shenanigans, Turkish music has been getting more popular in the States and Europe recently thanks to the rediscovery of Turkey’s rich psychedelic music legacy. From the psych rock of Turkish garage bands in the 1970s, bands like Altin Gün and now Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek have been fusing these pysch rock elements with long-jamming Anatolian folk traditions, bringing a kind of Deadhead vibe to Turkish saz and bağlama jams. Based in Germany’s Turkish diaspora, Yıldırım brings vocals and bağlama to the band’s electric riffs. Her vocals float on air and the songs on the band’s new album, Dost 1, are again based on Anatolian folk songs. If this is your first introduction to the wild world of Turkish psych folk, you’ll be amazed.
BONUS: Let’s Add Raki to Wine: Women in Istanbul ca. 1931-46
Baltimore-based Canary Records has been tirelessly and quietly releasing amazing 78rpm record collections from Arab, Turkish, Ottoman, Syrian, and other Middle Eastern or Balkan diaspora communities. This 2021 album of Turkish women from the 1930s and 40s is sublime, drawn from often minority women (Jewish, Greek, Romani, and Armenian) who came into their own following national reforms in 1930.
From ancient times, Persia has been a global colossus and frequent foil to the Western perspective centered first on Greece and then on Rome. This conflict continues today with political saber rattling on both sides sadly, but Iran will always be home to a hugely important legacy of music and culture that influenced the world. This album of contemporary compositions from Iranian kamancheh (a type of spike fiddle) virtuoso Sabda Alizadeh fuses these traditional instruments into a contemporary electroacoustic soundscape. It’s heady stuff, but whereas a project like this in the hands of a lesser musician might water down the traditions, here the swells of bowed sound endemic to Persian classical music rise like a tidal wave. It’s richly recorded and beautifully performed, full-body, total experience music. I May Never See You Again is out on newly formed 30M Records, a record label based in Hamburg and dedicated to releasing new works by Iranian traditional artists. Their 2021 compilation album, This is Tehran, is great as well. By the way, when I say “traditional” here, I’m not talking about old folk music. Persian traditional music comes from a deep well of classical music with a complex and very old history. If you’ve heard of the Persian kamancheh through the work of Kayhan Kalhor of the Silk Road Ensemble, this album is a great way to get a new perspective on the instrument.
BONUS: It’s also not on Bandcamp siggghh, but This Pale from sitarist Ustad Shujaat Khan of India and Iranian-American singer Katayoun Goudarzi is a lovely example of Silk Road collaboration. Goudarzi sings the poetry of Rumi here with Khan’s incredible sitar playing and backup from Iranian and Indian artists.
INDIA and PAKISTAN
Guy Buttery, Mohd. Amjad Khan, Mudassir Khan – One Morning in Gurgaon
India and Pakistan (and also Afghanistan) were really at the center of the Silk Road, perfectly situated between China and Persia to maximize trade both ways and full of all the spices and riches the Western world could want. They were also close to the Central Asian cultures that dominated the Silk Road at various times, absorbing all these influences into a rich cultural history. I wasn’t expecting an album from a South African guitarist to be the best representative of India’s contribution to this article, but I’m a sucker for sarangi music of any kind. A kind of vertical fiddle from India (someone called it a “box cello” which seems crazy but kind of works), the sarangi is wildly difficult to play, easily one of the hardest bowed instruments in the world, but it’s also filled with great beauty and wonderfully evocative melodic possibilities. This album came about from a 2019 tour of India that brought Buttery together with sarangi master Mudassir Khan and tabla master Mohd. Amjad Khan. The tour was somewhat impromptu and the trio had little time to rehearse (partly due to traffic jams on the way to the session in Delhi), but you’d never think that from how tightly everyone plays here. Sure, you could get the majesty of Hindustani sarangi classical music direct from any number of great Indian masters, but part of the fun here is three great players enjoying trying out new ideas together and forming a remarkably compact and enjoyable sound. Start with “Raag Yaman” if you want to hear the sarangi in all its glory, but the whole album is very listenable and lovely.
I’ve raved about Pakistani vocal master Ustaad Sami for Folk Alley before, but I’ll keep raving. He’s the last master of Pakistani surti music (using a 49-note scale!!!!), a tradition that predates the better known Qawwali. He’s been persecuted for his music in Pakistan by religious fundamentalists, but he perseveres.
Mongolia represented the real power of the Silk Road, as the horsemen of Genghis Khan swept from the Central Asian steppes all the way to Europe (before turning back when they realized what a cultural backwater Europe was at the time hahaha). Interestingly, there’s been a whole wave of Mongolian metal bands recently. I keep seeing their viral videos pop up on Facebook or YouTube, though I haven’t been able to trace where this new music is really coming from or why metal seems like such a great creative ground for Mongolian artists. Maybe there’s some tie between the tumbling growls of Mongolian throat singing and traditional song that speaks to a common metalhead? Whatever the case, this fusion of Mongolian folk traditions and crushing metal is an absolute blast to listen to. Though Mongolian metal band The Hu are perhaps the best known and most viral of this wave, I’m partial to the band Nine Treasures (shout out to always excellent Bandcamp writer Josh Feola for introducing me to them). They perfectly meld the low low vocals of Mongolian traditional singing (and lots of rolled “r”s) with a bombastic heavy metal sound, bringing in the instrumental sounds of the Russian balalaika and the Mongolian morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. Folk metal can be found all over the globe, so it should come as no surprise to find it in Mongolia, but still there must be something in Mongolian traditional music that lends itself to metal. I’ll leave it up to the ethnomusicologists to figure that out; I’d rather just listen and enjoy!
BONUS: Sandwiched between Mongolia and Russia, the tiny republic of Tuva is well known around the world for their tradition of throat singing (basically singing two notes at once using overtone harmonics). These traditions are well represented in this rather mysterious compilation album from a Dutch record label on Bandcamp:
China lay at the end of the Silk Road, and bequeathed the world the fabric that the road was named for: silk. Viking warriors across Europe adorned themselves with Chinese silk in the Dark Ages, and for hundreds of years silk was valuable enough to be nearly a form of currency. I was disappointed to find so little Chinese traditional music on Bandcamp, though once again Josh Feola has done a great job at tracking the more avant-garde Chinese albums there. I did find a new guzheng album from Lixue Lin-Siedler and a great Japanese/Chinese collaboration between Wu Man & Kojiro Umezaki, but I keep coming back to this intriguing album, 42 Days, from experimental duo Southeast of Rain. Though both from the Chinese province of Fujian, Sophia Chen and Lemon Guo came together at an artists’ retreat in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. Dedicated field recordists, they recorded the soundscapes around them of the Bay Area, weaving it into improvised and composed music for Chen’s Chinese pipa (pear shaped lute) and Guo’s voice. The album is soothing and haunting at the same time, grounded in a kind of California perspective, but otherworldly and mysterious too. It’s a deeply thoughtful album that unveils itself more as you listen.
BONUS: There have been some fun collaborations between Chinese artists and Western folk artists recently, but I just found this great album melding Appalachian old-time music with the music of the Yi people of Yunnan province. Jenny and the Hog Drovers represent Appalachia while Manhu represent the Yi, and the artists met overseas in China and collaborated to create this fun fusion.