Film Review: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

The greatest language known to mankind is front and center in this ebullient doc, charting a band formed by that eternal wunderkind, Yo-Yo Ma.
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Making a truly joyful noise throughout the world for some years now, the Silk Road Ensemble is an eclectic mix of international musicians who come together and jam, bringing their various diverse instruments and cultures to deliver art to the people in the most utopian manner. They joined up at the behest of none other than superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who came up with the idea as a way of staying truly engaged in music, after having completely conquered the classical world with his huge talent and charisma.

Morgan Neville, who also made the wonderful, Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, has deposited an informal biography of Ma at the center of his film—we see him as a seven-year-old prodigy, performing for the Kennedy White House, and later as the “Golden Child” from Harvard. Unsurprisingly, the renowned cellist proves a wonderful camera subject and nicely loose host for the proceedings. Although you may leave The Music of Strangers wanting to know more about the complexities and less affably grinning side of this genius performer, there are enough colorful personalities with fascinating pasts to give the doc a wonderfully warm fund of human interest.

Wu Man was one of the original Chinese kids taught by Isaac Stern in a historical cultural exchange from the past, and her specialty is the pipa, a lute-like traditional instrument. Syrian Kinan Azmeh plays a mean, sinuous clarinet, while Iranian Kayhan Kalhor is a master of the small-bowed kamancheh. Sadly, he had to leave his country after the 1979 revolution, tried to return, but left again after the 2009 turbulence, with a concert canceled for security reasons. There are others as well, including, quite prominently, the ultra-vivacious bagpiper Cristina Pato, whose soulful presence was deemed highly necessary to provide a certain sexy earthiness.

This seamlessly professional and handsome movie is one joyful party of festive, infectious sounds which make the strongest case imaginable for the allure of so-called “world music,” and should be basically taken as such. Nothing is going to bring this happy band down, and if a certain grittier drama is lacking here—apart from the unrest in some of the countries they hail from—the overriding message of disparate folk conjoining to bask in the ageless universal language of music rings wonderfully loud and most clear for all to enjoy.

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