The documentary film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble is a wonderfully vibrant and upbeat film about the power of music to transcend national borders. It captures the diverse stories and sounds of an extraordinary group of musicians from around the world, brought together by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Named after the trade route linking Asia and Europe, the Silk Road Ensemble includes musicians from 20 countries including China, Japan, Mongolia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Spain, and the US, who were assembled by Ma for an exploratory "jamming session" in 2000. Their collaborative project took on a much deeper significance after September 11, 2001, and since then the group has celebrated how music can bring people together, even as politics drives some people apart.
"In a world where people are talking about building walls, they are building bridges," said Morgan Neville, the director of The Music of Strangers in a Q&A session with LAWAC after the screening on June 13th. "The Silk Road is not the landscape, to me it's the metaphor," said Neville who himself is a musician. The film starts with a mesmerizing sequence on the waterfront of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, where the Ensemble plays a rousing string composition with instruments from a dozen different countries to the sound of a Spanish flamenco singer, while an artist rapidly sketches a view of the city on a huge canvas in front of them, gathering a large crowd of onlookers. Even as he plays along on his cello, Ma's face broadens into a grin as he sees how his ensemble is bringing passersby together in this city, the crossroads between East and West.
Referred to as the "Manhattan Project for music", the film captures the Ensemble communicating through "perfect music language" beyond borders. "Soft influence tends to get discounted," said Neville who won an Academy Award for 20 Feet from Stardom. "Unlike elections and economics, it tends to not get the same seat at the table... it's important to remind people that culture has real currency." Or as one of the musicians says: "Who remembers who was king when Beethoven lives? It is culture that stays..."
Early in his career Ma traveled to Africa to spend time with the Bushmen in the Kalahari - he participated in one of their trance dances, and afterwards, "I asked them why do you do this? They told me 'because it gives us meaning.'" Increasingly for Ma meaning was to be found in the intersection of different cultures - hence the Silk Road concept.
While making the film, major current events directly impacted the lives of many of the musicians - from the Arab Spring, to the Syrian revolution, to the refugee crisis. The musicians at times struggle with how their music can be relevant in an environment of conflict - "my music cannot stop a bullet," says Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Syria. But they persevere with their aim of creating beauty in the face of the ugliness of violence and repression, under the strong guidance of Yo-Yo Ma himself. "He's someone that doesn't entertain the idea that something can't work," says Neville.
Q&A with Director Morgan Neville
On filming with Ma, Neville said it was "Quixotic with Yo-Yo. It always is." Neville said he first talked to Ma on a Tuesday night in February of 2012 in LA and Ma called him the next morning. "He said can you meet me Saturday? I want to introduce you to the rest of the ensemble. We're in Hong Kong." So Neville got on a plane and flew to Hong Kong. "And a day later I got on a bus and was going into mainland China."
Now in its 16th year, the Ensemble has performed in over 25 countries around the world, and has released six albums. "The music part of it is just a small part of what they're doing," said Neville. "When they are on tour they spend part of the day doing workshops.... Buying musical instruments and helping educate refugee kids." The ensemble also continues to add new musicians. "It's gone on in time and is self-selecting," he said. "The one thing that has kept a lid on it is Yo-Yo.... Yo-Yo is the glue."
The glue that holds East and West together - or, as the Chinese lutist Wu Man says at the end of the film, "there is not East and West, it's just a globe."