Hundreds of High Schoolers, Resettled Peoples Find Connection Through Art

Grammy Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble bring music to unexpected places during a week-long residency at Holy Cross

Over the course of a week-long residency at the College of the Holy Cross, wherever the Silkroad Ensemble went — whether on campus or throughout Worcester — connection followed. The Grammy Award-winning musical collective, made up of musicians representing dozens of nationalities and artistic traditions, spent five days collaborating in classrooms, hosting workshops, leading jam sessions and performing.

Kicking off year two of a three-year residency with Holy Cross sponsored by Arts Transcending Borders (ATB), Silkroad creates music that engages difference and sparks radical cultural collaboration, finding ways to teach and learn along the way. And this is exactly what they brought to Holy Cross.

Silkroad visited classrooms to work with students across the board — from first-year Montserrat students to upperclassmen in the Honors Program — infusing music into their seemingly unrelated courses and drawing unexpected connections.

This semester's visit also gave particular focus to community engagement, an interest shared by both Silkroad and ATB, by bringing the work of Silkroad to recently resettled peoples and local high school students.

Mid-week, a jam session was held in downtown Worcester, where amateur and professional musicians from Worcester's immigrants populations and recently resettled refugees were welcome to join Silkroad for an evening of music. More than 35 musicians from a range of cultural and musical backgrounds arrived.

"'What happens when strangers meet' was one of the topics that emerged in the sessions that happened throughout the week," says Yonca Karakilic, associate director of ATB."This particular event was kind of the epitome of that idea, of something really special and maybe even unrepeatable happening when differences meet."

The event, which featured much spontaneity, also faced a unique problem: how to find cohesion among dozens of strangers, playing very different instruments, and who did not speak a common language. Shane Shanahan, Silkroad's co-artistic director and a percussionist, guided the musicians as they negotiated their differences to find communication — and commonality — through music.

"Engaging in the arts creates magic because it transcends all borders: language, race, politics, economics," says Shanahan. "Arts related activities allow everyone to connect in a joyful experience of self-express and listening. Every voice is accepted and every voice matters. The jam session at Worcester PopUp was a great example of this."

This type of community-wide collaboration was also hosted on campus — albeit scaled up — with more than 200 local high school students arriving on campus on Friday morning to participate in the College's second annual Festival of the Arts.

With 14 workshops being offered, each group of high school students participated in three workshops led by Holy Cross faculty and students. The workshops, ranging from Improv 101 to Hands on Sculpture, brought the arts together at Holy Cross and introduced young students to the possibilities of creativity and what it could be like to study the arts in college.

The day culminated on the Hogan Oval with a performance by Silkroad and an interactive musical piece that welcomed the high school students — and the Holy Cross community that had gathered — to participate in singing, percussions and the visual arts alongside the Silkroad artists.

"In Silkroad, we talk a lot about three concepts central to our mission: curiosity, deep listening and empathy," shares Danny Mekonnen, saxophonist in the Silkroad Ensemble. "I believe that when we engage communities through the arts we build the capacity for understanding which leads valuable connection."