Are musicians allowed to have this much fun?

It is Tuesday night, and I sit in Buchanan 1910 crowded by students, faculty and grey-haired locals, all transfixed by the spectacle only a few feet in front of us. A group of a dozen performers, some standing, others seated on schools or ornate cushions, each with an instrument. Some, like the cello and viola on the left, are intimately familiar in shape and tone. Others, like the slender kemencheh or the whispery ney flute are entrancingly foreign, weaving in and out of familiar harmony with the other instruments in the ensemble. These performers are the Silk Road Ensemble, currently performing “Kor Arab” (The Blind Arab), a fluttering tension of string parts that abruptly grows quiet as Alim Qasimov, a classically trained vocalist from Azerbaijan, draws a deep breath. The other musicians share the audience’s anticipation as they watch their senior member seated in the center of the ensemble. And then, Qasimov sends his voice soaring from his body, slowly at first, rocking and lolling with each syllable of his lonesome song. It is hard to believe that this is his own voice. The ethereal strains erupting from his flailing body seem the song of a man possessed.

The Silk Road Ensemble’s message: the glory of our world’s surprisingly interconnected musical history. The performance I write of is only the first of many the Ensemble is performing throughout Santa Barbara this week, culminating in an Arts & Lectures-sponsored performances Friday, March 9 and Saturday, March 10 at the Arlington Theatre, headlined by Yo-Yo Ma, the world-class cellist whose virtuosity is only matched by the range of his involvements in groups like the Silk Road Ensemble.

It is clear throughout the evening just how much the Silk Road Ensemble enjoys what they do. There are no first-chair rivalries or sectional antagonism. The musicians applaud each other after solos, throw themselves about while playing and drum on their hands and knees during percussion breaks. Like the wandering musicians whose ballads and dances they now perform, the performers seem bound by a common love of music and an easy companionship born of months of the road.

The Silk Road Ensemble is a musical collective founded in 1998. Featuring a rotating collection of artists of a dozen different nationalities, the Silk Road Ensemble boasts among its number world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Iranian composer/kemancheh sensation Kayhan Kalhor, and pipa player Wu Man, who performed at UCSB last year. Their current repertoire includes songs ancient, new and somewhere in-between. Many of the songs they perform are newer innovations on ancient regional favorites from across Eurasia. Others are new takes on these themes by modern composers, and some of the Ensemble’s most popular numbers have been written by its members to make full use of the Ensemble’s strengths, with themes and melodies inspired by the groups’ journeys and camaraderie. The publicly funded group of musicians has recorded three studio albums and have performed extensively in the U.S., China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, Italy, the Kyrgyz Republic and many other nations, having themselves retraced no small part of the Silk Road in their performances.

The Silk Road Ensemble’s performances this week are only the most visible incarnations of a whirlwind of Silk Road-related events now taking place in Santa Barbara. Inspired by the theme and message of the Ensemble, UCSB is hosting a range of events from guest lectures to museum exhibits, including the recent Central Asia Film Day. Perhaps in conscious imitation of the limitless innovation of the Silk Road, the events of the past few weeks have been one of the most expansive and interdisciplinary experiences Santa Barbara has ever seen, with a huge number of college and community members involved in planning at every level.

“We’ve tried as much as possible to integrate this event into the community and student experience,” said Dean of humanities and fine arts Dave Marshall, who has been involved in planning the project for a year and a half. “Many departments, including East Asian languages & cultural studies, ethnomusicology, the Campus Art Museum and UCSB Arts & Lectures have pulled together to make this a truly interdisciplinary project.”

The Campus Art Museum has also joined the Silk Road spirit, and is currently hosting a small but fascinating collection of antique instruments of the Silk Road entitled “Sounds of the Silk Road.” A considerable share of the diverse instruments, having their roots in Persia, China, Kazakhstan and Japan, are used by the Ensemble in performance, and the exhibit presents a delightful opportunity to examine these instruments and their workings, from their jade-inlayed sounding boards to tasseled horse hair strings, before hearing them sound for the first time live.

The Silk Road Ensemble is also enjoying a weeklong residency in the UCSB Music Dept., where they have been instructing and performing for faculty, graduate and undergraduate students. Over the course of this week, the Ensemble is also making appearances in a number of undergraduate courses in departments from history and dramatic arts to religious studies and art history.

The most extensive aspect of UCSB’s Silk Road involvement is an East Asian languages & cultural studies course titled “The Silk Road: Sights, Sounds, and Stories.” Taught by Professor Bill Powell, the course, met Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and was offered for the first time this year as a tie-in to the Silk Road Ensemble’s upcoming performance. The class is open not only to UCSB students, but community members of all ages and backgrounds attended as well. Together, the heterogeneous group of more than 100 students has been in a unique position to enjoy the many exhibits, films, lecturers and events these past few months concerning cultures involved with the Silk Road, and have also pursued a rigorous academic study of the region’s history.

For the uninitiated, the Silk Road is a massive network of trading routes and systems that connect Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Believed to have existed as early as the 4 century B.C.E. when Alexander the Great found Chinese silk already in the Mediterranean, the Silk Road remained in use until at least halfway through the second millennium A.C.E. Propelled by the exchange of innovations including silk, gunpowder, the printing press, mathematics, lacquer crafts and every other thing in between, the Silk Road also saw an exchange of religions, with the explosive spread of Buddhism, Taoism, Manichaeism, Christianity and, later, Islam, creating unimaginably divergent sects and communities in the process. Finally, the Silk Road was well traveled by musicians and instruments, blending the early musical styles of the great Eurasian civilizations, and creating the precursors of instruments used around the world today.

When writing of the Silk Road Ensemble’s success in Santa Barbara, one is reminded of the success of the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion” earlier this year. It strikes me as more than coincidence that these broadly intercultural events have crossed Santa Barbara within a few scant months of each other. Businessman Jack Welch once said that “Globalization has changed us into a company that searches the world, not just to sell or to source, but to find intellectual capital – the world’s best talents and greatest ideas.” It seems that UCSB has recently become such a company, and, to our benefit, has found some truly priceless intellectual capital.