The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble (2015)


Cast includes: Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Zameh, Keyhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man
Director: Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, Twenty Feet from Stardom)
Genre: Documentary | Music (96 minutes)

Huffington Post

Yo-Yo Ma is packing for another trip… this time, joined by a film crew. “This is my cello. Have you seen one before?” The destination… Istanbul. The Silk Road Project began in 2000. To date, they’ve released 6 albums and performed in 33 counties. Each venue honors its location… in Istanbul they play outside with the gorgeous city as a backdrop… Kevork creates a large drawing of the city on the sidewalk as they perform. In addressing a group at the Leid Center for the Performing Arts, Yo-Yo starts with a story about a son who tells his father, “I want to be a musician when he grows up.” The father says, “Sorry Son, you can’t do both.” [Get it?] Yo-Yo never made a decision to become a musician. “When you’re good at something from an early age, you don’t need much introspection.” At age 7, he performed for a Leonard Bernstein Young Performers Concert… his path as a classical musician seemed obvious. Yet, he “hadn’t found his voice.” For the Silk Road’s Syrian clarinetist, Kinan, there were life-and-death obstacles in his path. “They say music contributes to the human spirit. But music can’t stop bullets.” He never wanted to leave Syria, but staying wasn’t an option.

Wu Man is a pipa player. Her talents were recognized at an early age, as well… becoming an overnight sensation at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Like Yo-Yo Ma, she never had to make a decision about her life or her music. Yo-Yo surprised everyone when he went to African to spent time learning from the Bushmen. “He wants to put some dirt in his bones,” they tell us. Yo-Yo has a theory about where creativity happens… when one culture meets another, there’s an intersection… that’s where creativity happens. And that’s more or less what happened in 2000 at the Tanglewood Festival. Yo-Yo brought together top musicians from all over the world to collaborate on something new. After a chaotic workshop, their concert was met with mixed reviews… “Cultural tourism… not pure… not great, but interesting.” It was going to take more than one workshop to create music at the level of each musician’s individual talents. Still, they liked what was beginning to happen and planned to keep working.

The events of 9/11 gave the project new urgency… a need to turn chaos and pain into an experience anyone could share. It didn’t matter that the group members came from different backgrounds or might have different political views. They put music before politics… “Does anyone remember who was king when Beethoven lived?” The Music of Strangers is an exceptional film on many levels. Not only does it have a wonderful soundtrack and beautiful visuals… it tells the stories of selected members, all “rock stars” in their own right. Like Yo-Yo Ma, most of the other members have busy performing schedules beyond the Silk Road Project. In many ways, that’s why their music is so alive. They don’t play together regularly, so they haven’t lost their individual cultural or musical identities. Each Silk Road collaboration is an interesting overlap of cultures but never a blended homogenous stew. In ancient times, it was the Silk Road that connected Europe, Asia and Africa. Going back to Yo-Yo Ma’s original theory, it’s when cultures overlap that creativity happens. It took a musician of the stature of Ma to bring together the best of the best… each contributing his or her talents, culture, experiences and pain.


popcorn rating

4 popped kernels

The Silk Road Project… the music, the artists and their stories

Popcorn Profile

Rated: PG-13
Audience: Grown-ups
Gender Style: Neutral
Distribution: Art House
Mood: Upbeat
Tempo: Cruises Comfortably
Visual Style: Nicely Varnished Realism 
Nutshell: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Pure Entertainment & Thought Provoking

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