Movie Review: "The Music of Strangers"

Sixteen years later, the ensemble may have changed out a few players, but it still tours the world every year.
Photo credit:
The Orchard Movies - YouTube

“This film is trying to remind people that culture is not the frosting on the cake. It’s the plate that the cake sits on.” --- Director Morgan Neville

We say that music builds bridges. World-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s desire to know how that works and exactly what it means led to the formation of his Silk Road Ensemble, and finally to this film.

It will surprise many to know that Ma never “committed to” music. He reports that he “fell into it” through early music training (he started studying cello at age four).

In 2000, Ma took a new step in his lifelong crusade to “figure out who I am and where I fit in the world” when he decided to travel the world in search of the best musicians.

He invited some 50 of them to join his Silk Road Ensemble, a multicultural mix of musicians and instruments, many unfamiliar to western audiences. The name comes from the ancient trades routes from China through India and on through the Middle East to Rome.

Sixteen years later, the ensemble may have changed out a few players, but it still tours the world every year.

Director Morgan Neville (best known for the Oscar-winning music documentary “20 Feet from Stardom”) follows this diverse group as they perform around the world, exploring the ties that bind musicians and musical styles together regardless of language, heritage or instrument. He concentrates on four.

Wu Man, the world’s premier pipa (Chinese lute) player, was in the first class at the newly-reopened music conservatory after the Cultural Revolution. When she returned after touring with the group, she found traditional music quickly disappearing, and has become a musical preservationist.

Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor plays the bowed Kamancheh (spiked fiddle). He fled Iran during the revolution and walked thousands of miles across Europe to sanctuary with just a backpack and his instrument. He was 17.

When he returned, he found a generation that knew nothing of Iran’s traditional music. He married in Iran and settled outside Tehran.

But politics forced him to flee again. “I don’t know who writes the scripts for different revolutions,” he says, “but they all look the same.” He says he will not perform there again as long as art and music are held hostage.

Cristina Pato (from Galicia) plays the gaita (Spanish bagpipes). “The sound of the bagpipes is the sound of Galicia,” she says. For her unconventional performance style, she is called “the Jimi Hendrix of the gaita.”

The latest recruit, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh lost two friends in the war.

Then a missile hit his house and he lost both parents and his brother. Kinan takes flutes to a huge Syrian refugee camp in Jordan to conduct workshops for children. “They think there isn’t time for music,” he says. “But that’s when people need music.”

Somebody called Silk Road “the Manhattan Project of music.” So far they’ve made six albums, with no sign of stopping. Ma notes that he’s spent 22 of the 35 years he’s been married on the road, and that his son Nicholas once thought his father worked at the airport because he went there so often.

One might wish for a bit more information about each instrument, or about the music that has been composed for the Silk Road Ensemble.

But Neville’s personal approach is infectious and the players make it clear through their commitment and joy that music is the subject.

After all, as Kalhor puts it, “Nobody remembers who was king when Beethoven lived. But culture lives, music lives.”

Recommended audience: Music fans everywhere.

You can pre-order "The Music of Strangers" HERE.