What is the value of music?  What purpose does it serve our lives and how do we justify our continued efforts to make music an immortal message about our culture for everyone to enjoy?  Culture itself seems meaningless when any society can easily be reduced to a collection of individuals who only require food and shelter.  The concept of tradition is merely nostalgia for our past and our respect for our elders, but how does any of that benefit the greater good?  It is best explained in this film that the reason for any human to do anything that is creative, or beautiful, or poetic is to give our lives purpose.  We create a world in our minds based on the traditions we have learned and share that with everyone we come in contact with.  It becomes part of your personality, your passion, and your art.  Our brief or long-term interactions with each other, whether it be by talking, painting, or performing, helps to evolve humanity.  Our shared ideas and stories helps to bind us emotionally and spiritually, but it also helps strengthen our purpose in life.  We wish to see happiness for every soul on Earth.  Art is the language of the soul and it transcends and transforms all cultures and societies.

In The Music of Strangers, directed by Morgan Neville, Yo-Yo Ma wanted to bring together musicians from all walks of life, and all parts of the world; so in 2000 he organized a group called the Silk Wood Ensemble.  It consisted of a variety of percussion, woodwind, and string instruments that most likely never played together in any formal capacity.  The musicians that arrived in Massachusetts for the first jam session shared some unique personalities, but everyone was excited and eager to contribute their style and culture to the composition.  As the story of Yo-Yo Ma is intricately placed throughout the film, you are given the origin of his passion for the cello and music in general.  One of those inspirations being Leonard Bernstein.  Yo-Yo Ma’s love of music and the belief that we can be greater than the sum of our parts is what caused this project to succeed after all these years.  Not only do we get to learn some of Yo-Yo Ma’s life and his humor, we also get to see the lives of several players in the ensemble such as Kayhan Kalhor from Iran, Christina Pato from Spain, Wu Man from China, and Kinan Azmeh from Syria.  We learn about their tragedies and how it influenced their decisions to travel abroad and seek a new life, where their music can be practiced without fear of violence or government suppression.  While they spend years performing for the public on the street, in refugee camps, and in concert halls, they bring with them a sense of hope and inspiration that this world desperately needs.

What I found the most interesting about this documentary was the initial impression of the Silk Wood Project.  When it first began,  critics thought of it as diluting the purity of one’s culture and a musical gimmick.  As if instruments from different countries couldn’t mix together and create something magnificent.  It’s a form of cultural segregation and while I understand their reasoning, I choose to believe that sharing even a fraction of your culture with a new audience will not only strengthen your pride in that culture, but it will also encourage art that is influenced by it.  Music has found a new genre from this project and it has yet to find an official home, outside of special performances.  I would love to see classical arrangements updated to include a Spanish bagpipe(gaita), or a stringed instrument such as the pipa, or a kamancheh, a Persian violin-like instrument that is played like a string bass.  The performances these musicians come up with are fresh and vibrant.  They provide a sense of the familiar, but then take you into all new auditory territories.  Even if you heard one of these instruments before, to combine it with this incredibly talented ensemble is to hear it for the first time.

One of the strongest elements of this film is the amazing stories each musician brings with them.  Learning how America became a new home for them while political turmoil ravaged their old ones.  They don’t identify with a particular point in their country’s history, but instead embody their country’s spirit.  They take that perspective and that perseverance and translate it into music.  All of the emotion and purpose they have acquired over time is brought forth and comes out of their fingertips.

The Music of Strangers is a brilliant documentary about beautiful human beings who want to change the world one note at a time.  I would have preferred more time with each musician and the editing sort of pulls away from each person’s story too soon.  I became especially intrigued by Christina Pato’s life and her cheery disposition.  She reminded me of Amelie for some reason.  I am also fascinated by Wu Man’s tale.  Her cover of rock songs on the pipa is sublime.  The music and the instruments themselves are incomparable and that breakthrough of introducing us to new tastes and worlds by mashing them all together is a masterful stroke on Yo-Yo Ma’s part.  Tradition is a wonderful thing, but if it doesn’t evolve over time it can become stale and forgotten.  There is a form of puppetry from China that is mentioned in this film.  It is no longer being taught to the younger generation because there is no money to be made from it.  Tradition keeps that art form where it is and sees that nothing happens, but if you allow it to be taught to the world through Youtube or as part of an ensemble performance in New York and Paris then there is a chance that some form of that tradition stays alive.  It may not be exactly as you remember it, but it bolsters that art’s identity and makes it relevant again.  I recommend this film for anyone who enjoys seeing the triumph of the human spirit, but done so through an instrument.  Whether that instrument be music in nature, or dance, or paint, it all helps to enhance our world and give us purpose.


About The Music of Strangers

Synopsis: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other international artists of The Silk Road Project discuss their philosophies on music and culture.

Director: Morgan Neville

Stars: Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man, Kevork Mourad, Wu Tong

Rated: PG-13

Runtime: 1 Hour, 36 Minutes

Notify of
1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments