Rhiannon Giidens Broadends the Silk Road

In San Diego The Trancontinental Railroad arrive

By: - Nov 28, 2023

The Transcontinental Railroad connected the Eastern and Western United States the same way that the Silk Road of Asia connected the Orient to Europe. Upon completion of the railroad, goods that would take six months to travel by boat around the Horn from the West to East Coast now were transported across the country in days. Most importantly, ideas and culture were transported. This crisscrossing changed the United States and made it the superpower it is today.

To most Americans, the history of the Transcontinental Railroad consists of a photograph taken in Utah in the late 1860s. The owners of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads are shaking hands, surrounded by railroad workers. Most everyone in this photo is a white male. Excluded, on purpose, are the African-American, Chinese, Irish, and other immigrant communities whose work was just as crucial as those pictured in the golden spike photo. Also excluded are the Indigenous communities whose land was confiscated to build the railroad.

Led by Rhiannon Giddens, the 2023 Silkroad Ensemble presented American Railroad at the Balboa Theater in San Diego. Under development for 3 years Silkroad artists traveled the US, engaging with community leaders, culture-bearers, historians, and artists to gain a deeper understanding of how America’s railroads impacted their communities. American Railroad is dedicated to giving new voice to the laborers who contributed to one of the United States most incredible feats of engineering and their music which enriched American cultural life.

Beginning with the sound of a train whistle blown through a conch shell, melancholy sounds are heard as visuals behind the artists show Indigenous communities on land they will be forced to leave. The rhythms of the railroad are always in mind, imagined through music. American Railroad plays Eastern melodies interpreted by Wu Man on the pipa and Chinese percussionist Yazhi Guo. Sandeep Das’s tabla performance depicting the complex sounds of South Asia is intense and delightful. The drum, a major form of communication in ethnic communities is ever present, with percussionists Haruka Fujii and Kaoru Watanabe.

African beats, Irish melodies, and Chinese songs tell the story of men far from home, many separated from their families because of American immigration practices that limited the numbers of non-white people who could work. Have You Seen My Man, sung by Giddens, Pure Fe, and Karen Ouzounian is particularly moving and sorrowful.

Visual artist Camilla Tassi created the video running behind the musicians. Actual historical photos and artwork created by artists from the cultures provide a constant reminder of the peoples who were not remembered.

Shawn Conley, Mazz Swift, Niwel Tsumbu, Michi Wiancko and Francesco Turrisi, round out the excellent ensemble. The tour program includes three new commissions by jazz artist Cécile McLorin Salvant, native musician and visual artist Suzanne Kite, and Wu Man, as well as re-envisioned arrangements by Rhiannon Giddens and fellow Silkroad artists Haruka Fujii and Maeve Gilchrist.

American Railroad packs in a lot. But its goal is to educate the public by using music to highlight the impact of the railroad on the diverse communities that built them, and how their legacies impacted America overall. If it sends a child or adult to learn more about the Transcontinental Railroad beyond the golden spike, they will have accomplished their goal.