It was as if WOMAD had dropped into the Auckland Town Hall with a preview of its current Taranaki festival, offering a first-class musical voyage around the world in just 80 minutes.

It's been 21 years since cellist Yo-Yo Ma instigated his original Silk Road Project and on its latest visit, the nine players of Silkroad Ensemble came up with an ear-watering bag of cultural allsorts — pieces by Ravel and the radical American John Zorn cheerily sharing the playlist with Vietnamese folksongs and trancey Indian drumming.

This was music fired with life, right from the opening fanfare, in which Cristina Pato's Spanish bagpipes sparred playfully across the stage with the piercing reeds of Wu Tong's suona.

Another terrific moment came when Tong's sheng — a Chinese mouth organ — rose triumphantly from mesmerising percussion to lead the band in riffs that were more New York than New Delhi.

Various musicians handled introductions along the way. Pato, describing herself and many in the group as immigrants, spoke of the richness that comes about when one takes one's culture to new lands and then brings it back, re-charged. A richness that, at one point, delighted us with some jazzy, light-as-air solos from bass man Jeffrey Beecher.


Another adventure was introduced by percussionist Sandeep Das, preparing us for rhythmic hypnosis and promising some "spice" when the music got cooking. And it positively sizzled, particularly with Nora Fischer's spirited vocal exchanges with the instrumentalists, in a sound world far removed from the transcendental purity of her earlier Ravel prayer, Kaddish.

An unexpected personnel change meant we missed out on Dvorak but we did get to meet John Zorn's fallen angel, Zavebe. The catchy jam session with this title, served up Latin style with Middle Eastern twists, launched a bracket of pieces inspired by Heaven, the truly celestial highlight of which was a heartrending solo from Tong on his shimmering gold and stunningly sculptural sheng.

What: Auckland Arts Festival - Silkroad Ensemble
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by: William Dart