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

The joy of music.

The joy of music.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man, Jeffrey Kipperman, Edward Arron, Leo Suzuki, Shaw Pong Liu, Camille Zamora, Carlos Castro, Siamak Aghaei, Claude Chaloub, Son de San Diego, Doug Mattocks, Long Yu, Roberto Comesana, Lee Knight, Paco Charlin. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

Leonard Bernstein famously said that music is a shared language between all people. We are all united by it, whether we listen to country and western, J-pop or Chinese opera. Music transcends and defines cultures, bringing us closer to understanding each other when we hear the music of other cultures. Language may be a barrier but great music unites us all.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most celebrated musicians of our time, founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 1998. His goal was to use music as a unifying force to promote cross-cultural understanding. Many of the musicians, some of whom are profiled in the film, live in areas torn by civil war and political upheaval.

Some of their stories truly tug at the heartstrings. Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian, plays a traditional Iranian stringed instrument called a kamancheh, a kind of spiked fiddle. He has been critical of the current regime which has put a stranglehold on what art and music is acceptable to the state and which isn’t. He hasn’t been allowed to perform in his own country and the government refuses to issue a travel visa to his wife. In order to make a living, he must leave Iran and so he spends a great deal of time alone and without the stability of the one who loves him most (and incidentally she’s absolutely gorgeous in the way that Middle Eastern women are).

Kinan Azmeh comes from Syria, whose civil war and repressive despotic regime have sent vast numbers of refugees fleeing its borders, including Azmeh. He plays for refugees and teaches the young people in those camps the history of their culture through traditional songs of their people, songs that are being robbed from them by their displacement.

Not all the stories are like that though. Cristina Pato is from the Galician region of Spain and has become a huge pop star there, playing a traditional bagpipe-like instrument. She comes to understand the criticisms that have been leveled against her and seeks to find a middle ground in terms of traditional music versus personal evolution. There is in fact a common ground, showing respect for what comes before while still expressing your own muse.

Ma, on the other hand, is a figure whose joy and smile are positively infectious. You can’t look at him, grinning with an almost otherworldly delight, and not feel that joy. In fact, you can see that expression on the faces of all the musicians when they play together. It is transcendent; the music takes them to another place and the collaboration between musicians allows them to share it in a way that defies borders, stereotypes and labels. The things we use to divide each other are torn down by the shared experience of beautiful music well-played.

Neville excels at musical documentaries as he showed in the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom which he directed. His strength as a filmmaker is being able to get us into the thoughts and hearts of the musicians he profiles, allowing us a glimpse into their lives and motivations. He personalizes these people and makes them stand out rather than being names on an album cover or images on YouTube. You will identify with these musicians, sympathize with them but most of all, admire them as artists and as people. When Wu Man, a Chinese musician, demurely says “There’s no East and no West; there’s just a globe,” her sincerity is not only charming but right on the money.

There are lots of interviews of the talking head variety and the film takes a little time in getting going. It initially feels more like an academic venture and those who don’t like the more cerebral documentary may have a hard time getting into this one initially. My advice is to stick with it; by the time the end credits roll, you will find  the impact of the film is resoundingly straight to the heart and less to the head, although there is plenty of that. Besides, you don’t want to cheat yourself of the amazing music that these musicians make. I only wish there had been more of it.

REASONS TO GO: Life-affirming in the best possible way. Some of the stories are truly heartbreaking. Ma’s joy is infectious and transformative.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too talking head for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ma in his career has played on more than 90 albums, 18 of them Grammy winners.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Bodyguard (2015)

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