Today, Silkroad announced details for the next phase of its multi-year American Railroad initiative—the organization’s most ambitious project to date, conceived by Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens. Beginning on November 5, 2023, Grammy Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Giddens and the Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble will embark on a multi-city U.S. tour, with performances and corresponding educational activities focused in areas with notable railroad-related cultural history. The tour program includes three new commissions 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 and Maeve Gilchrist. Tickets to all concert dates are on sale now below.
“The American Railroad project has been years in the making, and the program we’ve created for our first tour is only the beginning. In it, we shed light on those who have been erased or overlooked throughout American history and merge with it Silkroad’s unique ability to amplify voices from a multitude of backgrounds and cultures. The result is a tapestry of stories, traditions, and musics that have shaped our multifaceted cultural identity, and that must be heard and recognized. I hope audiences in the D.C. area and across California will leave these performances with a clearer sense of where we come from, how we got here, what it cost us—and that we collectively reflect on where we’re headed,” said Giddens.
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.
The project—three years in the making—represents Giddens’s vision for Silkroad, having first raised the idea early in her tenure as Artistic Director. In addition to the upcoming tour, American Railroad will include multidisciplinary components ranging from site-specific visual installations to an album, a documentary series, and curricular materials for use by educators and the public.
Though the first tour officially launches this fall, preparation began much earlier through artist retreats and site visits across the nation—to Standing Rock (ND), New York City, and San Francisco (CA)—where artists engaged in historical and cultural research, which informs the overall storytelling and the commissions specifically. The process also included a series of retreats and open workshops, titled Train Station Trios, held in Sacramento (CA), New York City, and Springdale (AR). These culminated in informal, hourlong performances comprising trios of Silkroad musicians and local scholars and featuring new music inspired by the railroad’s impact on that particular area. The Train Station Trios series will continue in 2024 and beyond.
Arising from these workshops, as well as additional research, the commissions on the American Railroad tour all come from female-identifying or non-binary artists. 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.
Two of the American Railroad tour commissions come from artists new to Silkroad. 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 will create a graphic score using the Lakota written language based on dreams from members of the Silkroad Ensemble. Silkroad artist and pipa virtuoso Wu Man will also create a new work for the initiative, arranged by Chinese composer Haihui Zhang.
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 are being re-orchestrated for the larger November tour.
Select stops along the American Railroad tour are complemented by education and community engagement activities, including residencies at local universities comprising guest lectures, panel discussions, master classes, and open rehearsals; and public programs that allow audiences of all ages to engage more deeply with local railroad history. In the Los Angeles area, Silkroad artist Mazz Swift will lead a workshop through Project MUSIC (Music Uniting Strangers Into Community). Silkroad’s Project MUSIC leverages partnerships within the justice system to bring shared musical experiences to carceral communities across the country, where walls are a literal and figurative divider. Additionally, Silkroad will partner with For Freedoms, an artist-led organization that centers art as a catalyst for creative civic engagement, discourse and direct action. Together, they will display four compelling billboards in Los Angeles that tell the story—from a visual perspective—of the fraught legacy of American Imperialism and the quiet histories of those who toiled to build this country.
The first tour of Silkroad’s American Railroad takes place November 5-18, 2023, with most concert dates in California. A second tour is slated for fall 2024, with dates up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest of the United States.