THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE (Morgan Neville, 2016)
Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston St. at Mercer St., 212-995-2570
Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway between 62nd & 63rd Sts., 212-757-2280
Opens Friday, June 10
About midway through The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the renowned international group performs an exhilarating song in a studio that leaves them just as thrilled as the audience. Renowned cellist Ma might be the heart of the ensemble, but it’s the joy of creating and playing music no matter what that makes this documentary soar. And music is something that director Morgan Neville clearly understands, having previously made the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom as well as Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, and Johnny Cash’s America. In The Music of Strangers, Neville traces the history of the Silk Road Ensemble, named for the thousands-of-years-old trading route across Asia, from China to the Mediterranean. Born as an improvised gathering of musicians at Tanglewood in 2000, it became a venture that tours the world, promoting collaboration and celebrating international interaction. “The idea of culture is not so much to preserve tradition but to keep things alive and to evolve things,” says Ma, who has had to deal with accusations of cultural appropriation and dilution. Neville focuses on five members of the ensemble: Ma, the Paris-born Chinese-American cellist who has been a star his whole life (archival footage shows him at age seven with Leonard Bernstein, performing for President Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline); Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, the first Chinese artist to play at the White House; Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist who is the artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Music Ensemble; Cristina Pato, a rock star on the gaita, the Galician bagpipe; and Iranian Kayhan Kalhor, a three-time Grammy nominee who is an expert on the kamancheh, the Persian bowed lute. Each shares stories of their personal history, focusing on their relationship with their native countries, which have undergone major changes over the last fifteen years.
They also explain how they almost didn’t continue after the events of 9/11, fearful of their Arabic connections and wondering whether proceeding with their mission was the right thing to do. “Everybody in the face of disaster reexamines who they are and their purpose,” Ma says, referring to their decision to go on. But their music transcends genre, history, and politics. “My intention is to represent my culture and the contribution that this very old culture made to human life,” Kalhor, who has been exiled from Iran, notes. And Ma adds, “The clearest reason for music, for culture, is it gives us meaning.” But Wu Man sums it all up: “There’s no East or West; it’s just a globe.”The Music of Strangers opens June 10 a the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza; Azmeh will give a special performance and participate in a Q&A following the 7:05 show on June 11 at Lincoln Plaza and the 5:00 show on June 12 at the Angelika, moderated by World Music Institute artistic director Par Neiburger. The Silk Road Ensemble has also released a companion album, Sing Me Home, which features such songs as “Green (Vincent’s Tune),” “Little Birdie,” “Ichichila,” “St. James Infirmary Blues,” and “Going Home,” featuring such guest artists as Bill Frisell, Abigail Washburn, Toumani Diabate, Sarah Jarosz, Gregory Porter, and Roomful of Teeth.