Mutations and Migrations


My ancestors came to America from Poland, Scotland, England and Sweden.  Long before that, a sweeping series of migrations brought some of them into Europe from the Steppes of Asia, and perhaps as far away as Siberia and India.  So when I explain my “European roots,” I often wonder what that really means.  And similarly, what does it mean for the orchestral music that I conduct?

Music does not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum.  The ever-evolving art of music has always been beholden to what has come before, and who was knocking on the door, so to speak.  The musical slice of culture—composers, performers, and instrument makers—perpetually soak up and incorporate what they experience.  Change in music is as inevitable as the evolution of cuisine after the introduction of a new spice.

I was fascinated with these connections as a young musician.  I even dropped out of the classical scene for a while to study ethnomusicology in graduate school.  While my dreams of studying m’bira music in Africa didn’t quite work out, I maintain a keen interest in the music of other cultures and how interconnected music can be terms of history and culture.

Examples of connections abound:

  • The violin family can be traced to a medieval instrument called the rebec, which is most likely derived from the Arabic rebab that entered Europe in the Middle Ages.
  • The “other” dominant family of bowed strings, the viols (violas da gamba) evolved from flat-backed plucked instruments (proto-guitars), brought into Spain by the Moors.
  • The banjo originated in sub-Saharan Africa, brought to America on slave ships.  Bluegrass, Dixieland and early forms of jazz all utilize the banjo, and the physical instrument and technique changed to accommodate the needs of each individual style.
  • Almost all percussion instruments in today’s orchestra and band originated in Africa, Asia or the indigenous Americas. Mozart’s addition of cymbals, triangle and bass drum in selected works demonstrates the assimilation of culture.  The Ottoman Turks used those instruments as part of the Janissary Bands that accompanied their troops.  Despite the hostile invasion, the Viennese fell in love with the musical sounds (as well as Turkish coffee!).

What this means for today’s musician is that we have a fascinating legacy of world connections.  This is described beautifully in the 2008 documentary with Bela Fleck, Throw Down Your Heart.  In the film, Mr. Fleck travels to Africa to discover the roots of both the banjo and his music.  (The entire film is currently available on Netflix—highly recommended).

Perhaps the best example of inverted music history is Yo-Yo Ma’s work with the Silk Road Project.  This ensemble has preserved traditional music while also encouraging new works and explorations.  An exciting reimagining of music takes place with these musicians, who draw upon traditions of many different cultures.  Their music encourages us to open our eyes by creating music that can affect us deeply.

This knowledge and search for roots does nothing to cheapen the art of existing music.  Rather, it enriches by providing a link to the past that is grounded in the present.  It embraces the fullness of human experience and potential.  This interconnectedness may just be what saves and ultimately progresses a musical genre, providing a way to reach beyond self-imposed boundaries.

 “Culture opens our hearts towards one another.  And the currency in culture is not money, but trust.” – Yo-Yo Ma

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

For more information about the film, Throw Down Your Heart, visit

For more on the Silk Road Ensemble and the Silk Road Project, visit


7 thoughts on “Mutations and Migrations

  1. I saw Bela Fleck and the Flecktones play recently and it far exceeded my expectations. It was amazing and I did not expect it to be. I hadn’t seen anything that impacted me that much since attending a performance by the Assad brothers.

  2. I first discovered “Throw Down Your Heart” when I grew homesick for my time in Liberia one night, and went prowling through YouTube to see if there might be a little thumb piano or good drumming. Indeed there was – and I found the wonderful clip of Ruth Akello and Bela Fleck.

    Later, quite by accident, I came across YoYo Ma in a duet with Alison Krause, performing the Shaker classic, “Simple Gifts”. It was my first visceral experience of hearing a stringed instrument “sing”.

    While politicians and leaders of various sorts continue their attempts to Balkanize the population, setting group against group, music continues not just to break down barriers, but to render boundaries irrelevant. Thank goodness.

    And thanks for a refreshing and stimulating post.

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