Sounds of The Silk Road: Five artists defining the modern trade route

Editor’s Note: ‘The Silk Road: Past, Present, Future’ travels east to west along this ancient trade route, exploring how traditional culture, arts, and trade have developed in the 21st century. This month we explore Scandinavia.

Story highlights

We asked music experts across The Silk Road to name an emerging talent from each country'

Meet the rising stars of Chinese electronica and Turkish jazz

CNN  — 

When plucky traders trekked the silk route hundreds of years ago, the only sounds to accompany them were the thud of hooves, slow breath of camels and rush of the desert wind.

Today’s Silk Road travellers may go by plane, truck or bicycle, but there’s a good chance they’ve got music to stimulate their senses along the adventure.

CNN set out to find the sounds of the modern Silk Road, from east to west discovering the artists whose talent will soon be crossing borders.

1. Sanam Abdolazimzadeh - Iran & Turkey

Who? Jazz singer Sanam Abdolazimzadeh’s story is one of clandestine talent. Born to a musical family in Iranian Azerbaijan, at four years old she began to learn the Nagara – a traditional Eurasian folk drum. With female voices banned in Iran, Abdolazimzadeh performed as an underground jazz and blues singer before moving to Istanbul to pursue her career.

What? Esra’a al Shafei, a civil rights activist and founder of Mideast Tunes, the region’s own Spotify, told CNN: “With its impressive range and rich, chocolatey undertones, Sanam’s voice is the perfect medium to translate jazz into Turkish and Azeri (the Azerbaijani language).”

2. Soulspeak - China

Who? Jeff “Soulspeak” Liang, is a Chinese-American producer, musician and DJ based in Beijing. Raised in Los Angeles, he immersed himself in the city’s hip hop and electronica scene and eventually went on to produce for Snoop Dogg. In 2008 he moved to Beijing, where a new wave of independent record labels created a flurry of opportunities. Liang has just released his first solo album, “Flux”, a skittering journey through soulful electronica and hip hop.

What? Shen Lijia is the co-founder of Soulspeak’s label, Ran Music. “Soulspeak’s musical background is very unique - he sounds so organic. He always records bass and guitar played himself to make it sound more human than machine. Not many producers do that today, which means their production loses the emotion that is defined by swing and imperfection. It’s beautiful and emotional.”

3. Nicholson - India

Who? Nicholson is the brainchild of Mumbai-based singer-songwriter Sohrab Nicholson and producer/drummer Rohan Ramanna. They met at Ramanna’s music studios in 2014 and have been writing and performing together ever since. Their stunning debut EP ‘For What’ was released in 2014 and last year the duo brought their haunting vocals and electronic soundscapes to the UK, playing live shows in London, Glasgow and Brighton.

What? Sahej Bakshi, the celebrated electronica producer known as Dualist Inquiry, went to school with Sohrab. “Even at the age of 15, he quickly became known as the obscenely talented kid whose piano skills were beyond anything any of us had ever seen.”

“Today, he’s evolved into one of the most effortlessly spellbinding performers I’ve ever seen. He blows me away every single time.”

4. Illmiyah (Desert Heat) - UAE

Who? Desert Heat are Emirati brothers Salim and Abdullah Ali Dahman, who go by the rap names Illmiyah and Arableak. Though they cite Run DMC and Nas among their influences, the pair avoid hip-hop’s usual treatise on drugs, violence and swearing in favor of a more positive message. Illmiyah released his first solo album “Stereotyped” in December.

What? “Desert Heat are a delightfully wholesome hip-hop duo,” said Esra al Shafei. “The group aims to undermine negative stereotypes of life in the Middle East by offering a lovingly complex portrait of Arab culture and traditions.”

5. Arys Arenov - Kazakhstan

Who? Arys Arenov hails from Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty. A graphic designer by trade, he began playing the drums at 14 and soon started bedroom composing. In 2014 he was selected for Tokyo’s Red Bull Music Academy, where organisers hailed him as “a master of spaced-out disco”. Yet his Kazakh influences are still prominent – several of his tracks feature the dombra, a traditional Kazakh string instrument.

What? “Arenov makes music with a distinctly Central Asian twist,” wrote the Red Bull Music Academy.

“Almaty might not have the biggest electronic music scene, but we know that Arenov is definitely one of its best and brightest.”

Who have we missed? Tell us your favorite new artists by tagging #CNNSilkRoad on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.