Photo provided by Maeve Gilchrist

One of the more innovative acts playing the Newport Folk Festival this weekend could have easily been booked for the Newport Jazz Festival … or even the Newport Classical Music Festival. When it comes to genre, the Silkroad Ensemble, led by Artistic Director and NFF veteran Rhiannon Giddens, is impossible to pin down.

The group is a loose confederation of some of the world’s greatest musicians covering sounds from blues to classical. Founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, Silkroad draws from musical traditions from around the world. They’ll be appearing at the Newport Folk Festival on Friday, July 22 as well as Indian Ranch in Webster, MA on Wednesday, July 27.

It’s the first time to Newport Folk for the Ensemble as well as harpist Maeve Gilchrist who I spoke to last week. She’s excited to be in town, playing with Silkroad and in support of Grammy Award winner Arooj Aftab, who will also be performing Friday.  

“I’ve heard about it (Newport Folk) for years, I come from a folk background in Scotland, it’s a legendary festival,” noted Gilchrist. “I’m going to be there with Silkroad and Arooj Aftab the same day … it will be a special visit for sure.”

“There are two premieres on this tour,” she shared. “One is a piece of mine, ‘The Call,’ which draws some melodic material from my native Scotland, inspired in part by the wonderful oceanic sound of the Hebrides, the singing from the Outer Isles.” 

Gilchrist has worked with Silkroad since 2016 when she was a part of the Global Musicians Workshop at DePaul University. “It’s now held at the New England Conservatory (in Boston),” she explained. “They hired me as a guest artist, it was such a wonderful week to teach and be part of their music camp. I come from a folk background, so I’m very familiar with the culture of fiddle camps, music education experiences for folks based on the oral tradition … learning by ear,” she added.

The Silkroad Ensemble blends musical genres like no other group on the scene today. I asked how artists from such diverse traditions could come together and create such an extraordinary sound.

“For us musicians, the idea of creating music that spans many cultural perspectives feels normal, but I think it’s still revelatory for a lot of our audience members,” said Gilchrist.

“When children are told ‘you can do anything, you can play anything, you can make anything,’ they do it,” continued Gilchrist. “I think it’s the same with musicians. Put a bunch of very talented musicians together and say ‘make something,’ and they will. Often the idea of limitation comes from the outside, in one way, it feels completely normal to be working with such an array of musicians that come from different backgrounds.”

She offered some observations on the cultural direction of the larger music world.

“It feels like there’s a lot of curiosity in the air right now, there’s a lot of cross-genre curiosity in the music world in general, and there’s a reawakening of interest in roots music in America. In ‘indie’ music right now, there’s a lot of interest in less regular instrumentation, harps and banjos are being brought into the mix with pop and rock instrumentation. There’s something about the zeitgeist of our time in popular music which is interested in less recognized instrumental voices together. We’ve already been riding that wave but now is a particularly impactful time to be making that kind of music together,” said Gilchrist.

“What’s so interesting about Silkroad, it’s a group of musicians, an umbrella organization focused on those intersections, I think Silkroad stands alone in that respect. They are really interested in getting to the heart of these intersections between musicians. If you sit with any one of these musicians long enough, you find common ground, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

As mentioned, Gilchrist has been busy touring with Arooj Aftab who won a Grammy Award for “Best Global Music Performance” earlier this year. “The recognition that she’s gotten this year, the Grammy has been fantastic,” she noted. “I’ve also been touring my album that was released during the pandemic,  called ‘The Harpweaver,’” she shared.

Gilchrist also runs the Rockport Festival with WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan, host of “A Celtic Sojourn.” Held each summer in Rockport, MA, the festival focuses on the outer fringes of Celtic music.

She’s thrilled to be working with Rhiannon Giddens, a worldwide leader in roots music.

“I’ve been so impressed with Rhiannon, I was a fan of her music before she came into the Silkroad family. She really walks the walk, she’s incredibly thoughtful and incredibly articulate, and she’s able to talk about hard subjects in a way that feels heartfelt and impactful. We’re very lucky to have her, she’s really moving us forward as a musician and an advocate for social change.”

Be sure to catch Phoenix Rising: Silk Road Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens at the Newport Folk Festival Friday at 5:35 on the Quad Stage.

The Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens will also be performing at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA on Wednesday, July 27. Tickets and further details here.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.