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THE HISTORICAL SILK ROAD

For centuries, the long, winding network of trade routes stretching from Turkey to China—known as the Silk Road—brought wealth and knowledge in both directions. As far back as 200 B.C, a steady trickle of traders traveled the Silk Road, the most famous being the Venetian merchant and explorer, Marco Polo (1254-1354), whose chronicle of his adventures inspired many other travelers. The Silk Road became the main link between West and East, and it created a unique and influential arts scene that still flourishes today.

The standard route ran from Xian, China, through the heart of Asia to ports on the Mediterranean: Tyre (in today’s Lebanon), Antioch and Istanbul (Turkey), and Venice. Here, the merchants unloaded and sold whatever loot remained after thousands of miles of rough travel.

Words also migrated along the Silk Road. For example, the word for “tea” sounds similar in virtually every language. The word crept westward from China, either from the north, as “chai,” or from the south, as “tea.” Even the English word “silk” owes its origin to the Chinese language, coming from the modern Chinese “si,” which evolved from “seres.”

During the Crusades, Europeans brought back new musical instruments and styles: tambourines, lutes (which morphed through time into classical guitars), kanoons (the Middle Eastern zithers that spawned our modern pianos), and kamanchas (ancestors of our rebec, violin, and cello). In return, Westerners introduced the violin, now one of the most common instruments on the Silk Road. Indeed, the Silk Road artists sometimes preferred playing the violin instead of the long-necked lute because they found it easier to move their fingers over the shorter distance. The absence of frets also made microtones easier to play.


This type of cultural exchange of musical ideas and instruments flourished during the Caliphate of Cordova in Moorish Spain (929-1031), when Muslim, Christian, and Jewish artists congregated at the court and played together.

The people of the Silk Road developed several distinct musical genres, one of the main ones being the modal music known as mugham (or makam). Mugham, a product of the Silk Road’s urban cultures, is a complex form that requires years to master. Often described as the classical music of the East, mugham is famous for its improvisational quality: the greater the master, the more complex the music.  Mugham is similar in concept to Indian ragas, and in the past, marathon performances would last for many hours. Today, our fast-paced lifestyle has forced musicians to present a shorter version.

One of the richest of the Silk Road musical traditions is folk mu- sic, which varies widely according to the religious, linguistic, and cultural background of the musicians. The singers often use a technique called melisma, which involves vocalizing one syllable over several notes, as in Gregorian chant. Unlike the Western approach, in which singers use the diaphragm for breath support, Central Asians often rely on their throats to sing. (Flamenco singing is the West’s closest equivalent to this technique; indeed, some scholars contend that Middle Eastern styles influenced flamenco.)

 Throat techniques vary over different regions. The Iranian and Azerbaijani mugham singers, for instance, call their technique “chahchah” or “jahjah,” and are said to be imitating a nightingale. In Tuva, a remote republic in the Russian Federation, a throat - singer can make several simultaneous groaning tones, creating a wonderfully odd style that to the uninitiated ear sounds like a barbershop quartet of demented ventriloquists.

After writing his account of seventeen years on the Silk Road, Marco Polo gasped on his deathbed, “I have told only half of what I saw!” We hope that you will follow up on any interest in Central Asian history and culture that this brief introduction may have sparked.