THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE (2016)
By Belle McIntyre
In the spirit of full disclosure - I am an ardent devotee of Yo-Yo Ma. He is number one on my list of people (living or dead) that I would love to meet. I am presuming that I do not need to introduce anyone reading this to the phenomenon that is Yo-Yo Ma. This most prodigal and prolific cellist has transcended his classical music roots and expanded his endeavors continuously as a collaborator extraordinaire - recording with artists as disparate as Bobby McFerrin and Bela Flek to satisfy his seemingly unquenchable curiosity about all types of music from everywhere. In order to fully realize his passion to explore and share the music of diverse cultures across the globe he ventured out of the concert hall and the recording studio. He went on the road and he founded the Silk Road Project in 1998. Inspired by the fertile pollination of ideas and knowledge along the trade routes known as the Silk Road which extended from Africa, through all of Asia he formed the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000.
Morgan Neville, the director of 20 Feet From Stardom (Academy Award Best Documentary 2014) and Best of Enemies provides a glimpse into this amazing group of 50 musicians from around the world as they travel and perform together with local musicians, share their various musical and cultural traditions and collaborate to make new and joyful sounds. To say that they are all having a fabulous time would be an understatement. The unbridled enthusiasm of Yo-Yo Ma and the ensemble members is completely infectious as they blend their instruments together with local musicians and express themselves in ecstatic heights.
As Mr. Neville did to great effect in 20 Feet From Stardom - he focuses on four of the ensemble members who get to tell their own fascinating back stories and reveal their thoughts and feelings and relationship to their music and culture. They are seriously accomplished, talented and articulate and have the same generosity of spirit and dedication to music as a mission for peace, healing and understanding as Mr. Ma.
Wu Man, is classically trained and hugely accomplished on the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument which comes closest to the lute in western music. She has transcended the classical genre and performed with countless international orchestras including the Kronos Quartet and made over 40 recordings including Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto.
Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist and composer, who has performed as a soloist with many notable international ensembles and orchestras, is a graduate of the Juilliard School. He has recorded with his ensemble Hewar and New York Arabic Jazz Quartet among others. He is artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Music Ensemble.
Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian virtuoso of the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument used in traditional Arabic music, has pushed the boundaries of his instrument as far as performing the Mozart Requiem at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, along with a long list of other orchestras.
The most engaging and unexpected one for me is the beautiful green-haired Galician pop star, Christina Pato, a virtuoso of the gaita (bagpipes). Steeped in the folk music traditions of Galicia, she is a well-known performer and recording artist in Spain. This is not your kilt-wearing style of bag piping. Prepare to be amazed at the raw earthiness of her performances (think Janis Joplin).
As I write this I am listening to some of the recordings by the Ensemble which is almost as transporting as seeing it performed in the film. I risk being annoyingly excessive and waxing lyrical in my respect and admiration for Yo-Yo Ma. But, let’s face it- he is one of our great humanitarians. He is an ambassador/high priest (take your pick) for the universal power of music to cross borders, to foster understanding, to enlighten, to uplift and to bring people together and to create transcendent moments of beauty and joy.
The film does not ignore the troubled, often horrendous conditions of the countries they visit but rather the contrast that they can provide through bringing the music into their lives. The dominant images of Mr. Ma are joyful. The man is a boundless optimist who believes in his mission to improve the world through the shared experience of music. He is unfailingly humble - stating that his motivation is simply “to understand the world and his place in it. Not unlike 70 million other people”. If his work were a religion, I would be a convert. At any rate, I’m a believer.
Article © Belle McIntyre
Images © themusicofstrangers.film