“The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble“ – In 1936, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, a violinist and music professor, moved from China to France to fuse Chinese music with French composing, but I wonder if he envisioned his son’s grander experiment, taking place 64 years later? In 2000, Yo-Yo Ma – a master class cellist who played for Leonard Bernstein and President John F. Kennedy – blended together several cultures of music into an ornate and beautiful orchestra called, The Silk Road Project, which eventually became The Silk Road Ensemble.
They have recorded six albums and performed in front of 2 million people in 33 countries, and this documentary covers the history and inner workings of the orchestra and tells the personal stories of some of its key performers. Director Morgan Neville devotes ample amounts of camera time to Yo-Yo (U.S.A.), Kayhan Kalhor (Iran), Cristina Pato (Spain), Kinan Azmeh (Syria), and Wu Man (China), as we learn about their struggles, triumphs and, of course, their expertise on their chosen instruments.
Some of their instruments, like a clarinet or a set of bagpipes are commonplace, but I did not recognize – let alone remember the names of – others, but with a simple plucking of their delicate strings, they offer lovely sounds to enjoy. The selected musicians’ stories are intriguing, and Neville interviews them in the U.S. and follows them to their homelands as well. While the ensemble’s music combines a host of cultures, these quiet moments in Iran, Spain, Syria, and China provide perspective into individual heritages and a small window into their lives. The film does not tell their stories – or the group’s story – in a linear fashion but instead, in an organic way.
The narrative continually flips between Yo-Yo, Kayhan, Cristina, Kinan, and Wu Man, without seemingly much rhyme or reason, but by the end of the picture, the audience receives clear portraits of these remarkable musicians through cinematic osmosis. Kayhan and Kinan’s lives are particularly heartfelt, as each man struggles with difficult political climates in their respective countries but seem to manage their internal challenges through teaching and playing music.
The two featured, female maestros – Cristina and Wu Man – are conversely more free-spirited and offer warm smiles, as they blazed their own paths towards Yo-Yo’s orchestra though immense talent and strong independent streaks. No fear best describes Cristina and Wu Man, and the only trepidation from any of these musicians was the original uncertainty if this concoction of cultures would gel back in 2000.
They obviously survived those initial fears and built something completely new and unique. Some of the movie’s most enjoyable moments are when this group spreads its collective peacock wings and performs, and the film offers clips from about five of their concerts, including a mesmerizing opening number on a pedestrian street during a pleasant morning.
“The Music of Strangers” delivers more than pleasantries. More importantly, it explores big ideas placed into action, but as the movie ended, I still had plenty of questions.
How often do they tour? How frequently do the lineups change? Do they change? How do audiences and the featured performers feel about the ensemble?
The documentary, unfortunately, does not address these inquiries and instead, focuses on the ensemble’s history and then deeply dives into the five musicians’ lives without a complete and holistic picture of the band. On the other hand, a moviegoer should walk away with new life lessons and good feelings about The Silk Road Ensemble’s musical union of diverse cultures.
Wu Man mentions, “There is no east and west. There’s just a globe.”
Image credits: HBO; Trailer credits: Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films (YouTube)