The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

A- Music documentary

Directed by Morgan Neville

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma decided to take his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created The Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them.

Documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies20 Feet from Stardom) captures the enthusiasm these talented performers have for their work. While it looks at their problems and suffering (which are significant), it shows the consolation they find when playing–especially together.

The film follows the ensemble and several of the individual musicians within it, creating a study of world music, its importance, and what one has to go through to create it.

Not everyone approves of such musical mixing. Many members of the ensemble were criticized in their native countries for “diluting” their cultural heritage. Never mind that art constantly evolves; there are purists everywhere.

The musicians that Morgan focuses on include the Iranian master of the kamancheh, Kayhan Kalhor; Ma calls him his brother. There are others. Wu Man plays the pipa–a stringed instrument from her native China–and in one scene plays an electrified one. Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato shows the charisma of Bruce Springsteen as she merges her Galicia musical roots with just about any genre–including rock.

And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma himself, who comes off as a modest, self-effacing, nice guy. Like Buster Keaton, he never really chose his career; fame found him as a seven-year-old prodigy. It’s given him incredible success, but at a price. He tells us in the film that in the 35 years of his marriage, he was on the road 22 of them.

Of course, Ma’s travails pale in comparison to those of the musicians who came from truly oppressive countries. Kalhor had to leave an Iran increasingly intolerant of artists who didn’t toe the line. Wu Man suffered in Communist China. The film becomes surprisingly political when discussing these issues. Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh cries about the losses among his family and friends, all because of the current war in Syria. He boils in anger at the refugee crisis, as Neville shows us the crowded, snow-drenched camps where people are freezing to death hoping to be admitted into a safe haven.

Much as I enjoyed The Music of Strangers, I have to admit that it
suffers from the problem so prevalent in recent music documentaries: There isn’t enough music. I would have easily sat through another 30 or even 45 minutes of this film if those minutes were of concert footage.