History’s Silk Road was a loose network of trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Traveling such distances required not only understanding different cultures and languages, but also learning about those peoples’ music along the way. In the 21st century, the Silkroad Ensemble, the brainchild of Yo-Yo Ma, brings together musical styles from around the world into a thoroughly fulfilling audio collage.
The Grammy-winning group will perform a program called “Uplifted Voices” at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University Jan. 29. Violinist Mazz Swift shared with Alchemical Records that the concept for “Uplifted Voices” came about thanks to Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens’s desire to have a show comprising entirely women and nonbinary artists.
“We’re doing folk from all over the world, and that includes some jazz influences and blues influences as part of American folk music,” said Swift, who uses “they/them” pronouns and whose first name rhymes with “jazz.”
Other artists joining Swift for “Uplifted Voices” will be Pura Fé, a Tuscarora/Taíno musician who plays lap-steel slide guitar, percussionist Haruka Fujii, pipa player Wu Man, cellist Karen Ouzounian and harpist Maeve Gilchrist. They will perform traditional music from China, Armenia, Japan and elsewhere, and connect it to Native American sounds from the New World in some unexpected ways.
“We learn about each other’s cultures through the vehicle of music,” Swift said, both in the general sense as well as getting together with the Silkroad Ensemble. “And in the process, we end up learning so much about the actual people we are with, and it deepens the love between us and deepens our knowledge of what’s happening in the world.”
Swift will be trotting out their take on an old spiritual called “O Shout,” which they said is part of acknowledging the Ghanaian concept of “Sankofa,” which roughly translates as going back into the past to retrieve something important.
“For me that means sort of finding my musical ancestors,” said Swift, adding that this process is complicated considering that when enslaved Africans were brought to the New World, they were forcefully separated from their traditions, languages and even knowledge of their places of origin. “I don’t know who my ancestors are, but I think of these musicians as the people who ‘made’ me,” they said.
Accordingly, Swift’s mission is to look back through spiritual catalogs to learn, if not their precise roots, then at least connect with a musical legacy handed down over generations. They have traveled to Africa in the past, which Swift describes as an incredibly enriching experience where they visited several nations as well as high schools and colleges. Upon arriving in Ghana, they relate that the greeters told everyone “welcome,” but when shaking hands with Swift, offered “Welcome home!”
“I was crying,” Swift said, recollecting this moment, which happened during a tour that went to several African nations besides Ghana. “There was actual exchange between [various] musicians…so we would collaborate with the local artists. Sometimes it would turn into a thing where we could actually invite them up on stage and do some performances as well.
“Musically and educationally, it was miraculous. But then the real deep part was realizing that I was taking in something that I didn’t even know I missed, which was connection to people from whence I came, so to speak.”
Swift said that what many Americans might not understand is that three-quarters of enslaved Africans were in fact transported to South America. Accordingly, Swift has played in an ensemble called Matito that performs “fogo,” traditional Brazilian music whose lineage not only goes back to that African diaspora but also incorporates elements of Indian beats as well as the sounds of European colonizers.
“Fogo is kind of like the country music” of Brazil, Swift said. “In fact, ‘Matito’ means ‘country bumpkin’ or ‘hillbilly’ in Brazilian Portuguese.”
Swift, who is based in Brooklyn, grew up in a musically inclined household and chose the violin at a young age. Swift has played their instrument behind such luminaries as DJ Logic, Kanye West and even Whitney Houston. Of Houston, who died in 2013, Swift shared that they and other musicians had practiced “hours and hours and hours” for the gig backing up Houston, who came straight to the studio from her famous interview with Oprah Winfrey.
“I remember her voice was hoarse, but when she walked in the door, my first thought was ‘Oh, there’s my long-lost friend!” Swift said, adding that they and the “Greatest Love of All” singer exchanged happy greetings. “It didn’t register that it was Whitney Houston. Her joy was real; she was truly a special person. I can confirm it just by being in the room with her and making music with her.”
Swift also relates that they often play violin on New York subway platforms, which has actually led to them getting offered several gigs.
“There’s a lot of sort of guerilla undercover folks on the subway,” they said of commuters who may not even realize the subway buskers are often found on TV, the radio and on Broadway.
In addition to constantly playing, Swift said a key to success for aspiring musicians is to continually say yes, especially when starting out. Network as much as you can, they said, and, when hired, make sure to be on time, be pleasant and act professionally. With that work ethic—and a ton of luck—life as a professional musician is within reach.
“Some people are learning music because they really want to learn it, but there’s also this expectation [of what] you’re supposed to do with it,” they said. “I tell people to improvise a lot, take some time to learn different sounds on your instrument. Don’t try to make it sound pretty; just try to make sounds that you like.
“It’s a great way to learn your instrument, and it’s also a great way to kind of learn yourself.”
Swift said they won’t have much time for sightseeing in connection with the George Mason gig, but they will speak to some university and high school students as well as visit a women’s and gender studies classroom. It’s all part of the process of passing on the experience they have collected over their years in music.
“I’ll never forget a high school music history teacher of mine told us [that] a good practice is if you hear about a war or a conflict, go find the music of that culture and listen to it,” Swift said. “I really thought that was amazing, and [‘Uplifted Voices’] reminds me of that.”
“It’s a very deep connection that we are fostering right now, and I’m excited to see how that affects the rest of the ensemble—and how people receive it.”
Silkroad Ensemble with special guest Pura Fé will perform “Uplifted Voices” at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Jan. 29. Tickets are available by going to cfa.gmu.edu.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.