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

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Don’t be put off. This isn’t just a film for musicians (although everything about it would probably suggest otherwise). In this documentary, iconic cellist Yo-Yo Ma puts together a gregarious ensemble of musicians gathered from the dusty corners of the globe to explore what it means to make music. Initially, you’d think that this would be all right. After all, music is music right? But with the diverse range of language barriers, cultures and weird instruments that enter “The Silk Road Ensemble”, it’s clear that Yo-Yo Ma’s mission is nothing short of heroic.

But first, if you’re not familiar with Yo-Yo Ma already, you could be forgiven for thinking that this guy falls into the stereotype of overachieving-little-Asian-man-that-plays-classical-music-with-impeccable-technique. Hey, I can say this. I’m Asian. I started playing piano at 5. I did the exams. And I’m not alone. But Yo-Yo Ma is a unique breed. As Bobby McFerrin puts it, Ma goes in search of putting “dirt in his bones”. His initial attempts are admirable, if not also humorous. The film shares old footage of Ma in the Kalahari Desert trying to play a primitive finger instrument. As the native bushmen look on, Ma wonders aloud, “Where the heck is the F?”

Fortunately, his early fumblings in The Silk Road Project become immediately worth it. The film opens with a breathtaking performance from the ensemble that is unapologetically diverse, full of musicality, creativity and life. Most notably, the ensemble includes pipa player Wu Man, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Iranian kamencheh player Kayhan Kahlor and the effervescent bagpiper Cristina Pato from Spain. Let the peppering of weird words in that last sentence be a testimony of how tasty this group actually is.

But as Ma clearly states, the Project was not without its critics. Some saw it as a watered-down version of each musician’s culture. For others, it was a frivolous pastime at the expense of the greater necessities of life. The difficulties of each individual were further highlighted. Kahlor recalls the persecution he went through as an Iranian who had moved to New York ten days before 9/11. Wu Man observes with sadness the slow death of the arts in China with the mad pursuit of financial security.

Through it all, The Silk Road Project is portrayed as the umbrella of safety that keeps these musicians alive. Yo-Yo Ma recalls that even in the Kalahari Desert, music and creativity was still integral to the people. It was there that he found a treasure of a quip from a wise woman who said that the pursuit of music was really the pursuit of meaning.

This may seem effusive at face value, but the reality of this comes through strongly in the documentary and the music. The ensemble is a fierce delight to listen to. The eye contact and grins shared between each other need no explanation. As soloists, they are technically faultless. As a community, they are a force to be reckoned with – to heck with all the other things that are happening in the world.

By the end of it, it felt like I’d been holding my breath for a long time. I couldn’t help but look around the theatre to check out other audience reactions. The smiles said it all. Yes, there’s a lot in there about music. But there’s even more in there about just being human. It feels hard to put a rating on something this big so I’m just giving it a 10.

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