Some people talk about building a wall. (OK, one fool in particular.) The perfect antidote to that mentality is The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. This beguiling and bittersweet documentary chronicles the efforts of the renowned cellist to found a performing group of international musicians from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, whose entire existence is dedicated to both cultural diversity and common humanity.
Filmmaker Morgan Neville won an Oscar for the fabulous 20 Feet From Stardom, giving back-up singers—the unsung heroines of rock ’n’ roll—their well-deserved moment in the spotlight. He knows a great music doc needs to feature not only wonderful music, but also dynamic personalities to perform it, and The Music of Strangers is incredibly rich in both.
In 2000, Yo-Yo Ma got the idea to search the world for masters of traditional instruments for a workshop and performance he wanted to stage at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. Born in Paris to Chinese parents and raised in the U.S., Ma embodies the spirit of internationalism. His idea was to follow the ancient “Silk Road” trade route, from Venice to China, scouring the world for master musicians.
And what an ensemble he came up with, fascinating in the ways their various instruments, and their playing, as well as their diverse personalities, mesh. Music is the defining element in all their lives, and none has been unscathed by political upheavals.
Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Damascus, brings dozens of wooden flutes to children in Syrian refugee camps. Wu Man survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China by her skill on a lute-shaped string instrument called the pipa.
Iranian Kayhan Kalhor is master of another traditional stringed instrument, the kamancheh. When “the revolution” (he says, derisively) hit Iran, he had to leave the country, on foot, with only a backpack and his kamancheh. A rootless loner for years, making his living from an instrument no one outside of Iran had ever heard of, he was able to go home in 2009, where he unexpectedly fell in love and married. But, unable to stomach the government’s repressive policies, he left again. Now he and his wife carry on their ardent relationship via Skype.
Then, there’s earthy and raucous Spaniard Cristina Pato, who plays—bagpipes. If, like me, you thought that instrument was exclusive to Scotland, think again. “If you are from Galicia,” she laughs, “you have the choice to either play soccer, or play the bagpipes!” And she plays them like no one else—swaying her hips, stamping her feet, half-singing around the mouthpiece, coaxing out exotic, hypnotic melodies. Fun flashback footage shows her as a young woman with green hair playing the pipes in a rock combo.
After Tanglewood, the players were looking for an excuse to keep up the ensemble, beyond the fact that it was just so much fun playing together. One year later, 9/11 happened. In a world turned instantly xenophobic, Yo-Yo decided it was more important than ever to maintain and promote the cooperative spirit of the ensemble. “My father doesn’t think of himself as a cellist,” says his son, Nicholas. “He wants to change the world; he just happens to have a cello in his hand.” Six albums and several globe-trotting performances later, the Silk Road Ensemble continues.
Insightful commentary is provided by the musicians themselves, other musical observers, and various composers who have written for the ensemble. “We don’t all necessarily speak perfect English,” says Chinese composer Tan Dun. “But we all speak perfect music.” And the musical performances are mostly thrilling, whether on a concert stage, or in an open courtyard in Venice, or around a dinner table, where the musicians start exuberantly chiming their wine glasses.
These folks understand that music can’t “stop a bullet,” or “feed the starving.” And some critics complain they are “diluting” cultural music traditions by blending them in the ensemble. But the film demonstrates how the ensemble helps its members keep their individual musical identities alive, while challenging the fear of the “other” so prevalent in today’s world.
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE
(***1/2) out of four
With Yo-Yo Ma. Directed by Morgan Neville. An Orchard release. Rated PG-13. 96 minutes.