Music is the universal language of mankind, affecting people from entirely different cultures is a very similar way. But when people from completely different cultures get together to make music, then it is a cultural experiment. The Silk Road Ensemble is a band composed by 60 extremely talented musicians who participated in a workshop in 2000 in Massashusetts. The mentor of the project is Yo Yo Ma, a classic cellist who already performed on TV at the age of just seven.
Yo Yo Ma is a Parisian musician, son of a Chinese couple, who was raised in the US. He didn’t pursue the career of musician. He started so early that he doesn’t even consider it a choice. By the end of last century, Yo Yo Ma put aside the classical repertoire that propelled his fame and instead tried something completely new: composing an innovative kind of music with musicians from every corner of the world. The Music of Strangers is the register of the encounter of those musicians, as well as some of their biographies.
Curiously, every musician has had some of tragic experience in their hometowns. The Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor was forced to live apart from his wife for political reasons. He had several relatives and friends killed during the Iranian Revolution. The Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh complains that nobody cares about the war in his country, so he decided to teach music to children in a refugee camp in Jordan. The pipa player Wu Man was the first woman to enter a conservatory soon after the Chinese Revolution, in 1966. She tells that at that time “dreaming was the next music”. Likewise Kalhor, she chose to be an immigrant. Also the Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato, who is very much attached to her family and the traditions of her hometown, has faced some health problems is her family. They all found a safe haven in music whilst preserving some very distinguished musical traditions from where they came.
Yo Yo Ma was the leader of this process. After 9/11, he thought he wouldn’t manage to make a second workshop, or a tour with The Silk Road Ensemble. He even quit writing music for some time. Eventually, he realised that “culture doesn’t end”. He wanted to keep the feeling of the first workshop alive.
The documentary directed by the Oscar winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, 2013) is a proof that creativity comes from the intersection of different cultures. When people join forces to fix their individual pathos, through art, they are able to open up new possibilities. The beauty of their music has its roots in the mixture of backgrounds, in setting up harmony with the sounds of instruments that rarely are heard together. The Music of Strangers is a celebration of differences, and it proudly flies the flag of artistic unity.
The Music of Strangers was part of the repertoire of the Sheffield Doc/Fest in June. It is out in cinemas on November 18th.
Watch the film trailer below: