Cellist Yo-Yo Ma leads once distant cultures joyously in consort in The Music of Strangers

As the screen goes black, the cacophony of instruments tuning up fills the cinema. Then abruptly, we are transported to a piazza in Venice to witness cellist YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Project in action. It’s like no orchestra you have ever seen or heard: a Babel of nationalities jamming away on an unlikely assortment of instruments – from traditional strings and winds to a Celtic harp, a pear-shaped oud from Lebanon and a bowed kamancheh from Azerbaijan, making a dazzling rush of sound as the passersby swarm around them.

Then just as suddenly, we’re taken to the quiet of the renowned cellist’s apartment, where he tells the story of how he came to gather this eclectic group of artists from the nations along the old Silk Road and beyond. The result is a gratifying exploration – both visual and aural – of personal, cultural and societal stories, from dealing with civil unrest in the Middle East to the ache of saying goodbye to loved ones, from inspiring young refugees with music to navigating the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

A man, a plan, an ensemble

Created in the year 2000, the basic idea behind The Silk Road Project was relatively simple – to see what would happen when you assemble a group of top international musicians bringing elements from their own cultures. It was an altogether new kind of orchestra, the brainchild of Yo-Yo Ma, who wanted to explore music beyond the classical repertoire.  Even with Ma’s international reputation – unmatched among classical musicians – its purpose, let alone feasibility, was far from certain. But thanks to the caliber of the participants, the project soon became known among their peers as “The Manhattan Project of Music” – something altogether revolutionary that might change the way we understand our lives.

Sixteen years and seven albums later, the group comprises over 50 artists from Spain to Japan, still performing along the historic Silk Road.

Its raison d‘être becomes an overarching theme throughout the documentary, as director Morgan Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers stitch together a quilt of stories from several members, from its founding through its most recent performances and on into the future. The anecdotes are engaging, each a kind of mini-biography of its own, moving briskly among the protagonists.

The film also delves into the role of culture and music in modern societies. In Galicia, bagpipe player Cristina Pato (pictured), shows us the importance of music in her community and how it differs from the rest of Spain, forming regional identity. She also explores the difficulties she encountered in adapting traditional Galician music to her almost punk-rockish persona. Meanwhile composer Kayhan Kalhor, player of an Iranian kamancheh a traditional string instrument and ancestor to the violin, struggles with his forced exile in the United States after the Iranian revolution, and leaving his wife behind in Tehran.

A musical road trip

The Music of Strangers is captivating, with exquisite performances by the ensemble: from their earliest sessions, still learning to play together and talk to each other, to sold-out performances, which make you want to join the standing ovations. Strolling through streets of Ourense, Galicia, with Cristina and her mother and paying a visit to a Chinese band and puppet show pulls us into microcosms most of us hardly knew existed.

Heart-wrenching, inspiring and joyful, it offers a trip into a world that is still largely unexplored, and is best experienced live.

On the silver screen is a close second.

Starts Oct 7, Filmcasino

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