American Railroad

Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens


Wednesday, November 15, 2023 | 7:30 PM
Bing Concert Hall



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PROGRAM SUBJECT TO CHANGE. Please be considerate of others and turn off all phones and watch alarms. Photography and recording of any kind are not permitted. Thank you.

About the Program

As a social-impact organization and home to a Grammy Award-winning musical ensemble, Silkroad works to inspire collaboration in innovative ways that add more equity and justice into the world through the power of the arts. Today, under the leadership of Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens, Silkroad reaches new heights through a commitment to new music, a re-sparked mission towards cultural collaboration, and a reinvigorated focus to high-quality arts education that both reflects its mission and the times in which we live.

Silkroad’s newest initiative, American Railroad, illuminates the impact of African American, Chinese, Irish, and other immigrant communities on the creation of the US Transcontinental Railroad and connecting railways in North America, and the impact of those railways upon communities displaced by them, including indigenous ones. Exploring the dissemination of cultures across the United States, the railroad was to North America what the Silk Road was to Asia, Africa, and Europe.

After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a trip from coast to coast that used to take months was shortened to just under a week, allowing for the transport of goods and ideas across the continent in ways previously inconceivable. Profit-seeking corporations and the American government financed it, but the people who actually built it and who were most affected by it are the focus of this program—Indigenous and African Americans as well Irish, Chinese, Japanese, and other immigrant laborers whose contributions have been largely erased from history. Silkroad’s American Railroad seeks to right these past wrongs by highlighting untold stories and amplifying unheard voices from these communities, painting a more accurate picture of the global diasporic origin of the American Empire.

Led by artistic director Rhiannon Giddens, this show will contextualize — or rather re-contextualize — the railroad through music. Chinese traditional music on the suona and pipa are contrasted with the fiddle and banjo of Black musical traditions, or their Indigenous and Celtic counterparts. These cultural intersections reveal a thread of commonality despite their varied origins, and remind us of the intricately rich American story.

The program includes three newly commissioned pieces by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Suzanne Kite, and Silkroad artist Wu Man, as well as re-envisioned arrangements by Giddens and fellow Silkroad artists Haruka Fujii, Mazz Swift, and Maeve Gilchrist.

Giddens’s new arrangement, broken into vignettes interspersed throughout the program, is inspired by “Swannanoa Tunnel,” a work song from the African Americans forced to labor on the railroad in Giddens’s home state of North Carolina—a tune which has long been associated with bluegrass and folk artists, its origins forgotten. Grammy Award-winning vocalist and composer Cécile McLorin Salvant’s work is inspired by stories shared with and collected by Silkroad artists. Oglala Lakota artist, composer, and academic Suzanne Kite has created a graphic score using the Lakota written language based on dreams from members of the Silkroad Ensemble.

Silkroad artists Haruka Fujii and Maeve Gilchrist provide their own recontextualizations of railroad songs from immigrant communities. Fujii’s “Tamping Song” celebrates the Japanese immigrant contribution to the railroad, particularly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, while Gilchrist’s “Far Down Far” shines light on the tensions between Catholic and Protestant communities within Irish railroad workers. Both pieces were originally created for Silkroad’s recent Uplifted Voices—another program intended to germinate ideas for American Railroad—but have been re-orchestrated for the larger November tour.

Featuring Artists

Rhiannon Giddens, banjo, voice

Shawn Conley, bass

Pura Fé Crescioni, lap-steel guitar and voice

Haruka Fujii, percussion

Sandeep Das, tabla

Karen Ouzounian, cello

Mazz Swift, violin and voice

Niwel Tsumbu, guitar

Francesco Turrisi, frame drums and accordion

Kaoru Watanabe, Japanese flutes and percussion

Michi Wiancko, violin

Wu Man, pipa

Yazhi Guo, suona and Chinese percussion


Yo-Yo Ma conceived the Silkroad Ensemble in 1998, recognizing the historical Silk Road as a model for radical cultural collaboration—for the exchange of ideas, tradition, and innovation across borders. In an innovative experiment, he brought together musicians from the lands of the Silk Road to co-create a musical language founded in difference, thus creating the foundation of Silkroad: both a touring ensemble comprised of world-class musicians from all over the globe and a social-impact organization working to make a positive impact across borders through the arts. Today, under the leadership of Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens, Silkroad leads social impact initiatives and educational programming alongside the creation of new music by the Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble.

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Rhiannon Giddens has made a singular, iconic career out of stretching her brand of folk music, with its miles-deep historical roots and contemporary sensibilities, into just about every field imaginable. A two-time GRAMMY Award-winning singer and instrumentalist, MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient, Pulitzer Prize winner, and composer of opera, ballet, and film, Giddens has centered her work around the mission of lifting up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been overlooked or erased, and advocating for a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins through art.

As Pitchfork once said, “few artists are so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration”—a journey that has led to NPR naming her one of its 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century and to American Songwriter calling her “one of the most important musical minds currently walking the planet.”

Her third solo studio album, You're the One, was released on August 18 on Nonesuch Records.

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