Silk Road Songbook (SRS) is a socially driven, audio-video project that weaves song into landscape, broadcasting thriving, independent voices on an ancient trade route, while challenging censorship and Orientalist exoticism. Grass roots songs channeling local voices concerning land, sovereignty, and cultural identity are created in collaboration with artists who live in/between Istanbul, Tehran, Tashkent, Kashgar, and Xi’an. Women’s voices are the dynamic driving force; land is the anchor. Songs become a ready vehicle for voices that aren’t heard above the din of political rhetoric and mainstream/popular media. Singing builds fortitude; singing together builds collective joy and defiance.
Songs are channels through which we can collectively mourn, remember, persist, protest, and declare. Songs have the capacity to turn sorrow and outrage into hope and fortitude. These ideas have steered SRS since its inception several years ago. Made in collaboration with artist Arzu Ozkal, SRS builds a network of participants (many of whom were strangers to us prior to the project) to work collaboratively across borders. During this ruptured time, caused not only by the pandemic but also by a global slide toward ethnocentrism and xenophobia, when gathering and travel are restricted, how can we be together while apart? Our production phase was originally intended to be onsite, in-person collaborations. Rather than coming up with stopgap Covid-19 measures, we have pivoted to embrace the consequential advantages: digital communication nimbly exceeds the hard borders defined by nation states. Ironically, since being confined by the pandemic, we more easily traverse the invisible lines of national borders by working remotely with one another. But in our collective isolation, the need for connection and the question of what is “home” tugs persistently at our hearts. Without physical travel and contact, how can we create haptic experiences that take us “home”? When Arzu listens to the song demo by our collaborators in Istanbul, she is filled with emotion and transported to an earlier life in Turkey when she would join her family to drink tea and smoke by the shores of the Bosporus to relieve stress and seek solace. Herein lies the power of song; it is through song collaboration with strangers that we can tell not only their stories but also our own. Our collaborators steer the selection of landscapes, musical genres, lyrical content. Together, we’re strategizing to contend with censorship, including: basing lyrics on poems by once censored writers; creating lyric-less songs that communicate through voice. Even beyond linguistics, voices are the carriers of distinct cultural identities. I still hear my mother’s voice, carrying me back to childhood when she would whistle a gently coaxing Hubei melody to soothe me.
SRS will consist of three interrelated productions: a multi-screen audio-video installation; a single channel version for screenings; a ‘songbook’ publication (to be published by Minerva Press) that contains the song scores, records the journeys, conveys participants’ stories, and critically reflects on the process. From Fall 2017 to Winter 2018, we made research trips to Xi’an, Dunhuang, Hami, Urumqi, Kashgar, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tehran, Kashan, Abyaneh, Isfahan, Ankara, Bursa, Istanbul; since 2016, we have conducted numerous research workshops (in Canada, the U.S., Turkey, Uzbekistan, China) related to the project. Research and development for Silk Road Songbook has been supported to date by the Ontario Arts Council, American Turkish Society, University at Buffalo Humanities Institute, University at Buffalo United University Professionals, University at Buffalo Dept. of Art, San Diego State University School of Art & Design.