The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble
“Nobody remembers who the king was when Beethoven was alive” muses Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. There is a great deal of soul-searching throughout The Music of Strangers – how can musicians change the world, how to be true to art, how to avoid cultural tourism, how can music exist in a violent world?…that kind of thing. The venerable John Williams suggests Yo-Yo Ma, a wunderkind who mastered his instrument at a very young age, faced the challenge of maintaining his interest. The Silk Road Ensemble, formed in 2000, was a sort of “Manhattan Project of music” and over the intervening 16 years has boasted more than 50 members, or as one wit has put it “A United Nations of jam bands”.
Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies) told the Sydney Film Festival audience his documentary took five years to complete and it has a certain haphazard flavour as Susan Wloszczyna suggests: “It often turns into a kind of rah-rah ‘It’s a Small World’ travelogue, filled with glossy ‘National Geographic’ views of exotic landmarks.”
It’s at its best when focusing on individual performers. Four are singled out for special treatment. Kalhor’s story is particularly poignant. Leaving Iran after the Revolution, he returned as a world renowned kamancheh player only to depart again after the 2009 Presidential Elections leaving his wife behind. Last year he was scheduled to play a concert in Tehran, but it was cancelled at the last moment “for security reasons”. Virtuoso Chinese pipa player Wu Man (“There is no East and West, there is only a globe”) gives us a version of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” before introducing us to The Zhang Family Band in Shaanxi and their puppet shows - “ancient rock ‘n roll”. Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh whose life has been torn apart by war, smuggles flutes into Jordan to teach refugee children. And force-of-nature, Spanish bag-piper Cristina Pato, whose stage presence is both punk and gypsy, introduces us to her mother who has suffered memory loss for decades and outlines her campaign to protect Galician musical heritage.
Oddly, Yo-Yo Ma struggles to bring clarity to his own story and his son is enlisted to inform us about his father’s life. The cellist is, however, in his element with the Ensemble and when they crank up the result is infectious and, at times, undeniably inspiring. One would like to think the great Sogdian traders of the ancient Silk Road would have approved of both the music and the multiculturalism. Variety may sniff that the film “winds up having the ring of an infomercial for one-world utopia”, but it had the loudest and most sustained audience applause of any film I attended at the Festival.
The Silk Road Ensemble have played to audiences that total two million in 33 countries and released seven albums. Recorded live performances are rare (except on You Tube) but Morgan Neville’s full length film of their 2012 “Live From Tanglewood” concert can be found on DVD and is included on “The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma: A Playlist Without Borders Deluxe Edition”. The DVD is only included in the Deluxe Edition.