Walking past the unassuming store front at 1944 University Ave. just east of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, you wouldn’t guess that the doorway serves as a portal to the vast lands and far-flung cultures of Central Asia. The orange and blue block letters above the windows spelling out Silk Road House offer a clue to the space’s purpose, but since opening on the spring equinox celebration of Nauryz in 2007, the cultural center has steadily expanded its purview with programming that offers sensual immersion.
Founded by Alma Kunanbaeva, a Kazakh ethnomusicologist specializing in folklore, storytelling, and linguistics, and her husband, the illustrious Russian ethnomusicologist Izaly Zemtsovsky, the Silk Road House takes a full spectrum approach to presenting Central Asian culture “that we liken to the five senses,” Kunanbaeva says.
“Listening to everything that’s available and seeing everything possible, movies, exhibitions, workshops. With taste, we run several programs with food. For touch, we have artifacts to give the sense of things. Smell is the most difficult, but we try to offer the smell of history, the feel of history, the wind of history bringing us to different places.”
The Silk Road House’s Central Asian breeze blows to several other Berkeley locations in the coming days. On Saturday March 30 from noon to 4 p.m. the Hillside Club once again hosts the center’s Nauryz celebration with hot and cold Central Asian dishes and a brief performance by Kazakh rockers Roksonaki. The event is presented with the support of San Francisco’s newly opened Consulate General of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
On Sunday, March 31 5-7 p.m., Ashkenaz presents a full concert by Roksonaki, a group led by Ruslan Karin. Kunanbaeva first booked the band as part of the Smithsonian’s huge Folklife Festival in 2002, a cultural exposition on the Mall in Washington D.C. Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble had recently released its first album, Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (Sony Masterworks), sparking renewed interest in the ancient trade routes that facilitated deep cultural exchanges across Eurasia and North Africa for some two millenniums until the middle of the 15th century.
Kunanbaeva was drawn to Karin and his band Roksonaki, the winners of the first international “Aziya Dauysy” (Voice of Asia) competition, by their combination of ancient and contemporary influences from rock and jazz. While many of their contemporaries were playing straight up rock ‘n’ roll and singing in local languages, Roksonaki included traditional Kazakh and Western instruments, “Kazakh music with a modern interpretation,” says Kunanbaeva, a longtime faculty member at Stanford University. “He was saying, we have something to tell the world with our own language and our own sound.”
Supported by the Silkroad Foundation, the Silk Road House has found new audiences with its popular storytelling events. Dana Sherry runs a weekly Wednesday morning story circle at the space, a series she started about five years ago focusing on Kazakh and Central Asian folktales with an intended audience of “American families who adopted children from Kazakhstan to connect with culture they came from,” Sherry says. “But as the kids started to grow up they got cooler and were drawn to other activities, so the series has evolved. In our second year, we started getting other Bay Area storytellers involved so it’s not just me all the time.”
Diane Edgecomb leads The Storyteller’s Paintbox workshop at the Silk Road House on April 13. On Sunday, April 14, she presents “A Thousand Doorways: A Storied Journey among the Kurds of Turkey” at Ashkenaz, part of the Silk Road House’s increasing number of events combining storytelling and music.
Kunanbaeva is still working to get the word out that the Silk Road House is far more than a Kazakh community center. While Kazakh culture is a main focus, she’s determined to represent “all the space between Japan and Finland, the whole Eurasian continent is included. The borders are artificial. Cultural borders don’t exist. We’ve been inviting everybody traveling through the Bay Area.”
That invitation reflects the Silk Road House’s embrace of caravanserai hospitality (“we always serve tea,” Kunanbaeva says). The caravanserai hosted tidings from distant lands and introduced different ways of thinking. “We try to recreate that,” Kunanbaeva says. “I can’t say we’ve been able to reach all of our goals. We don’t have staff. We’re all volunteers. But we’ve been able to keep growing, and there’s so much more we want to do.”