The purpose and importance of art and music is often debated. In a world where there are so many divisions, wars and hardships, what salve could music possibly provide? How does music and art in general connect people across cultures in ways that other means of communication cannot? The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, directed by Morgan Neville (who has helmed many other documentaries touching on music and art such as 2008’s The Cool School), explores some of these questions through the perspectives, lives and art of various musicians from around the world who have devoted their existence to their craft. While the film may seem aimless at some points and could benefit from a tighter structure, it brings up many points to ponder and will uplift viewers with its spirited cast of virtuoso musicians and the fantastic culture-blending music that they play when they all come together in one place.
The Silk Road Ensemble is a loose musical collective formed by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma near the beginning of the millennium. It brings together musicians (and instruments) from many different countries and cultures, allowing them to play off of each other and learn about new cultures through music. Besides Yo-Yo Ma himself, a few of the musicians showcased in the documentary include Kinan Azmeh (Syria, clarinet), Kayhan Kalhor (Iran, kamancheh), Wu Man (China, pipa) and Cristina Pato (Spain, bagpipes). Each of these individuals, besides being incredibly talented artists, has their own cultures, stories and interpretations of the role of music and art. The people shown in this documentary are all animated, passionate and fun to watch and I wish there was more time allotted in the documentary to focus on their lives and their interactions with other members of the ensemble.
Like I mentioned before, the documentary tends to drift and drag in places where it becomes a bit too reflective and stagnant. There is a bit of chronological organization at the beginning where it shows the initial meetings and formations of the Silk Road Ensemble but it does not stray too much on the technicalities of getting the group together which is good because it would take away from the film’s focus. Afterwards, the documentary opens up and introduces some of the members of the ensemble and the hardships they often faced in their countries. For example, Kalhor, a well-known figure in his country, had to leave Iran and his wife behind due to government pressure on his art. It’s pretty inspiring to see the strength and perserverance of these people in the face of oppression. The musicians, such as Wu Man and Pato, also explore ways that they can preserve their own cultures despite the changing times. Wu Man is almost moved to tears when she talks to an eleventh-generation Chinese puppetmaster who is unsure about the future of his trade. Despite many moving and thought-provoking moments like this, the film zips back and forth between people and times with no clear direction and it becomes a bit disorienting after a while.
However, the photography of the movie is often very beautiful and really evokes the different cultures and locations from Damascus to Beijing to Boston. It REALLY shines during the performance scenes. In fact, my favorite moment of the documentary comes right at the beginning where it shows the ensemble performing on a city street. The camera moves back and forth between musicians, focusing on their hands and smiling joy-filled faces. The energy is simply infectious.
All in all, The Music of Strangers is a very interesting documentary about the power of music and art. You get to learn about new cultures, meet some fantastic musicians and watch them do what they do best. It’ll get you smiling and, more importantly, it’ll get you thinking.