Musical Encounters along the Silk Road:
Gao Hong, pipa, and Issam Rafea, ‘ud

Enjoy these soothing, sophisticated duets on Chinese and Arab lutes, improvised by virtuosos Gao Hong on the pipa and Issam Rafea on the ‘ud. Their musical conversations highlight the expressive magic of two instruments that share common roots but are rarely heard together.


The pear-shaped, bent-neck, and wooden-faced lute originated in Central Asia, where the Sogdians were prominent traders along the Silk Road. The instrument traveled eastward from its home in present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to China, where it became the pipa, and westward to the Arab world, where it evolved into the ‘ud.

This performance was presented in conjunction with the launch of the Freer and Sackler’s online resource The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads. It includes a separate chapter on Sogdian music by Ingrid Furness, with artwork showing the lute in the sixth to eighth century and links to audio and video examples of modern music that descended from the Sogdian era. Here is an excerpt from her article “Retracing the Sounds of Sogdiana.”

Music clearly played an important role in Sogdian life from a very early date, as is evident in a number of terracotta musician figures discovered at native sites dating as early as the fourth to third century BCE. Among the earliest figures are lute players, most of which have been discovered at the present-day city of Samarkand. Lutes depicted in these works took a variety of shapes, and many were likely played with plectrums. One type resembles a modern guitar with a narrow waist; it is possibly related to the Central Asian tar. Some with round bodies were perhaps related to the ancient Chinese ruanxian. The most common type of lute, however, was likely pear-shaped and related to the pipa, a Chinese lute with a wooden front, four strings, and a bent neck. Lutes, angular harps, drums, and flutes were core instruments in Sogdian ensembles.

One marble relief from a sixth-century Anyang funeral bed shows five seated men listening to music and enjoying bowls of wine together in a vineyard. Such drinking scenes in Chinese-Sogdian art could have been linked to Nowruz, the Persian new year celebration. Four musicians entertain them: two play lutes, one performs on a conical wind instrument with a flared end (perhaps a double-reed related to the Central Asian surnay), and another plays an angular harp.

Works from the tombs of Chinese elites highlight the popularity of Central Asian musicians, including Sogdians, at the Chinese court and among the wealthy. One tricolor ceramic figure from the Tang dynasty shows a camel ridden by Central Asian dancers and musicians. Another figure performs the Sogdian Whirl, and yet another plays a lute. Members of the Chinese elite apparently enjoyed this kind of foreign entertainment.


Pipa virtuoso Gao Hong and ‘ud master Issam Rafea began performing improvised duets after meeting at Carlton College in a jointly taught class on world music. This collaboration led them to record duets that earned them two nominations for the 2019 Independent Music Awards. The British world-music magazine Songlines called their collaboration “a recording that is consistently engaging, deeply contemplative, and culturally resonant.”

Gao Hong graduated from Beijing’s elite Central Conservatory of Music. Since coming to the United States, she has performed at the Lincoln Center Festival, Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and at international festivals in Paris, Caen, Milan, and Perth. She has presented concertos for pipa with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Heidelberg Philharmonic, the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, the China National Traditional Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, Hawaii Symphony, and the Women’s Philharmonic (San Francisco), among others. In 2017 she became the first Chinese musician to play the National Anthem at a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game in Minneapolis.

Issam Rafea is one of Syria’s elite musicians. A refugee from the civil war, he served as chair of the Arab music department at the High Institute of Music in Damascus and the principal conductor of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. In Syria, he was an active composer and arranger for television and theater. Rafea now directs the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at Northern Illinois University. He has performed with guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque in cross-cultural collaborations and, with his Syrian orchestra, led a groundbreaking collaboration with Damon Albarn of the British rock bands Blur and Gorillaz.


This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by Andy Finch. Web production by Gio Camozzi and Torie Castiello Ketcham. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Photography by Hutomo Wicaksono. These performances were presented in conjunction with the launch of the Freer and Sackler’s online resource The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads. Special thanks to the musicians for granting permission to share their performance at the National Museum of Asian Art.

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