Along the Silk Road: Ancient and Modern Music for the Kugo (Motema Music, 2010)
The type of harp that Tomoko Sugawara plays on her Along the Silk Road recording hasn’t existed in some 300 years, that is until Ms. Sugawara brought plans for the instrument to luthiers Bill and Catherine Campbell. Before taking up with kugo harp, also known as the angular harp, chang, gonghu or kunghou, this instrument’s sole existence was found on the walls of Buddhist cave paintings along the famed Silk Road trade route.
Invented 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the harp traveled across the globe before essentially disappearing. The harp Ms. Sugawara plays is a replica based on an image from a reliquary box from Kumtura, a stop Along the Silk Road. Now what Ms. Sugawara does with the kugo harp is astonishingly striking and makes me wonder why we went without a kugo harp for so long.
Refined, expressive and hypnotically wrought, the music Ms. Sugawara creates finds a meditative space where the silent spaces are just as important as the notes played, turning the listener into a participant as notes and phrases cascade from this uniquely artful harp.
A professional harpist with three previous recordings to her name and performances at such esteemed institutions as the World Harp Congresses in Prague and Amsterdam, Meiji University, the New York Qin Society and the Fifth Symposium for Music Archaeology Ms. Sugawara has chosen the works from a eclectic mix of composers for Along the Silk Road that include Stephen Dydo, Robert Lombardo, Kikuko Masumoto, Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour and two works from King Alfonso X, ruler of northern Spain in the thirteenth century. These varied composers offer Ms. Sugawara a range not often offered on harp recordings, giving listeners a rare glimpse into the range of this instrument and giving Ms. Sugawara a vast playground to flex her considerable talents.
Along the Silk Road opens with the composition by Kukuko Masumoto entitled “Archaic Phrase for Kugo,” a piece that pairs the delicate beauty of phrasing with silent spaces to create a meditative landscape. Other offerings include two historical compositions of the Tang Dynasty by Stephen Dydo which are sumptuous in their simple intricacy. “Qawl” offers a pairing of chang and darabukka (darbuka), played by Azan Aksoy, by Iranian composer Quth al-Din al Shirazi and three elegantly Asian “Haikugo” tracks by Robert Lombardo.
Turning back to a Middle Eastern sound, “A Night in Shiraz” by Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour is hypnotically enchanting. Enveloping a flute, played by Robert Dick, the three “Shakugo” tracks by Robert Lombardo explore the fragile beauty of an another Asian space. My favorite tracks are the pairings “Cantiga de Santa Maria,” No. 249 and 213 by Alfonso X. With darabukka and bendir against the kugo, these tracks possess an echo of ancient intricacy and Spanish mystery.
Along the Silk Road is simply stunning, a sophisticated elegance wrapped around a harp. Ms. Sugawara proves that rediscovering a long lost harp is well worth the wait.
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Author: TJ Nelson
TJ Nelson is a regular CD reviewer and editor at World Music Central. She is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing Athena’s Shadow.
Set in Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long forgotten family mystery. Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of little help in her quest. Along with her best friends, an attractive Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931.
Traversing the line between the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to uncover Athena’s true crime.