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Re-Imagining the Railroad

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Silkroad Ensemble takes on the American Railroad in its latest cross-cultural musical exploration.

This Silkroad Ensemble performs this weekend at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. Photo courtesy of the Silkroad Ensemble/Noir Prism

America didn’t make the first locomotive, but nothing made America like the train. When the last spike of the first transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground on May 10, 1868, at Promontory Summit, Utah, Manifest Destiny was on rails. Sea to shining sea were connected and a national identity was born; no longer would there be New Englanders or Southerners, we were all Americans.

And only in America could such an epic feat of engineering occur. What other country had the land, broad shoulders, free market and, most important, free men? President Obama said in 2009 that the railroad was made possible by “the dreamers and risk-takers” willing to finance its construction. But it was made real by American workers who labored tirelessly to create an enduring symbol of American progress and unity.

Or so one version of the story goes.

That’s not the story behind the music of “American Railroad,” which the globe-spanning cross-cultural musical collective Silkroad Ensemble performs Saturday, Nov. 11 at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. Co-presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, it will be only the fourth public performance of the concert, which opened Sunday, Nov. 5 in Virginia. As of Oct. 31, the entire show hadn’t been rehearsed by the full ensemble, so changes could still be made, but at that point, it consisted of 16 musical pieces either commissioned for this production or rearrangements of traditional songs.

Each is “inspired by the last two years of our research and deep dive into the history” of the construction of American railroads and their impact on the communities they ran through, said Kaoru Watanabe, an ensemble member who is artistic lead for this tour and who also plays Japanese flutes and percussion.

What that research yielded were stories that are more likely to be found by reading between the lines of officially sanctioned narratives, or that exist in memory, or a trace of song: displacement of Indigenous peoples from lands the line was designed to run through; the economic exploitation of the thousands of Chinese immigrants; the use of enslaved labor to build railways in the south; the very presence of Japanese workers.

Those stories, Silkroad artistic director Rhiannon Giddens writes in the program, have “been largely erased from history … ‘American Railroad’ seeks to right those 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.”

Rhiannon Giddens is the current artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble. Photo courtesy of the Silkroad Ensemble/EbruYildiz
OK, but Where’s Yo Yo Ma?

Silkroad Ensemble began in 1998 as an experiment by legendary cellist Yo Yo Ma. Wanting to test the hypothesis that globalization could end up homogenizing world culture, he considered how the ancient Silk Road trade route was a precursor of sorts to globalization; but it was a model of cultural collaboration with ideas, traditions and innovations crossing borders. What would happen if he gathered musicians from contemporary regions in East Asia and the Mediterranean where the Silk Road had passed through? Would similar collaboration ensue? Some 25 years later, what’s happened is a touring ensemble that has released 10 albums and performed across the world, as well as a social impact organization with a mission of positive impact across borders through the arts.

Ma stepped down as artistic director in 2017. Though he’s no longer involved in the daily operations of Silkroad, he stays involved, occasionally dropping in during an encore of a show.

The main artistic vision of Silkroad now belongs to Rhiannon Giddens, who was named artistic director in July 2020. Four months later, she felt ready to announce her plans for the first time; “American Railroad” was atop the list.

At the time, Giddens had already demonstrated both her considerable talents (transitioning from classically trained opera singer to a Grammy Award-winning banjo and fiddle Appalachian folk performer) and interest in exploring alternative narratives, such as the role that Black musicians played in bluegrass and other types of presumably white music. Plus she earned a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017, and who can argue with that?

She’s only added to that resume since, with another Grammy for best folk album, and earlier this year she received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her 2022 opera, “Omar,” written with Michael Ables.

Giddens has serious game. So much game that Renee Bodie, general manager of the Soka Performing Center, said part of the appeal of presenting this program is that Giddens has played such a large role in its conception and execution (she performs in “American Railroad”).

Choosing Giddens was “a brilliant choice on the part of Yo Yo Ma,” Bodie said. “Giddens is unique in her talent and ability to communicate as an advocate for cultural voices (and) everything about this program is in line with Soka's mission,” which is to reach a diverse group of audiences and also a “diverse range of performances, artists and cultural backgrounds to the stage.”

The Message is the Music

If you are familiar with Silkroad Ensemble’s past work, you don’t need to worry that “American Railroad,” which is subtitled “A Musical Journey of Reclamation,” is more agitprop theater than a musical concert featuring world-class musicians.

While some of the songs Wednesday may have short introductions to provide audience members with some context, most of the intellectual freight will be carried by the program, which will include essays written by scholars providing historical context.

The primary mode of communication will be through the ensemble’s musical language, one that defies genres, borders and cultural insularity by gathering an astonishingly eclectic ensemble of musicians from different genres and cultural heritages and having them lend their talents to help create or interpret music that reflects each of their respective backgrounds but sounds completely new.

There are 34 members of the ensemble, all of whom have thriving careers in genres as varied as opera and modern jazz singing to film and TV scoring. Of those, 13 are part of this tour, representing 11 different cultural heritages and as many different instruments, including banjo and fiddle, cello and violin, tabla and pipa, Japanese flutes and various percussion instruments.

All of the songs were either written or rearranged after a two-year research period in which Silkroad artists and staff dove into American railway history and the impact of railroads on the four main groups that were ultimately focused on: the Chinese, Irish American and African Americans laborers who built the railroad and the Indigenous people displaced by it. After two years of talking to scholars, visiting historical societies and railway museums and, perhaps most importantly, talking to members of communities descended from those whose lives were displaced by the railroad, Silkroad’s artists assembled and shared everything they’d learned.

They found that despite what they were studying or who they talked to, certain themes emerged: hope, connection, strength, determination, change and loss. Those are what the new songs by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Suzanne Kite and five-time Grammy nominee and ensemble member Wu Man are inspired by, as are the traditional songs arranged by Giddens and fellow Silkroad artists Haruka Fujii, Maeve Gilchrist and Mazz Swift.

Whether viewers walk away from “American Railroad” with a changed perspective on the myth of the American railroad may depend on how thoroughly they read the program. But one thing everyone in the state-of-the-art 1,032-seat concert hall in Aliso Viejo will know: They just went on a journey.

There’s a “constant weaving in and out” of one musical style into another, Watanabe said. “One minute you’re in Ireland, listening to the rhythms and melodies of Irish music, and then the music converts to Chinese, reflecting the idea of Chinese immigrants working on the railroad, and then there’s the sound of Native Americans singing, and then it converts again to more African sounds and rhythms, so you’re traveling through the world in a way that is reflective of the narrative of ‘American Railroad.’”

‘American Railroad: A Musical Journey of Reclamation’

Where: Soka Performing Arts Center, 1 University Drive, Aliso Viejo When: Saturday, Nov. 11 Cost: $49.50-$115 Contact: 949-480-5500,


Classical music coverage at Culture OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Culture OC makes all editorial decisions.


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