“The Music of Strangers” Melds Diverse Musicians
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Filmmaker Morgan Neville has stitched together a feature-length documentary titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.” This film is now showing at Tropic Cinema.
Neville knows music. Among his previous docs and biopics are “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” “Johnny Cash’s America,” “American Revolutions: The Highwaymen,” “Brian Wilson: A Beach Boy’s Tale,” “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n Roll,” and the Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom” (a tuneful doc about backup singers). His American Masters TV offerings included “Troubadours: Carol King/James Taylor & the Rise of the Singer/Songwriter,” “Hank Williams: Honky-Tonk Blues,” and “Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied.”
Pop, rock, country, blues -- but “The Music of Strangers” conjures up a different style of music.
The Chinese cellist has been playing classical music since he was four. Now at 60, his distinguished career has produced over 90 albums, 18 of them winning Grammies.
However, along the way he has recorded Baroque pieces, bluegrass ditties, tangos, traditional Chinese music, a collaboration with jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, Beatle tunes, even Hollywood soundtracks. Critics describe his repertoire as “omnivorous.”
The idea behind the Silk Road Project was to bring together diverse musicians from countries historically linked to the Silk Road. The Ensemble performed at locales along the spice route, countries that include Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, India, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan.
“I’m always trying to figure out, at some level, who I am and how I fit in the world,” Yo-Yo Ma says in the film.
Ma plays a cello built in 1733 by Domenico Montagnana, an instrument valued at $2.5 million. He affectionately calls it “petunia.”
But the musicians in this documentary highlight a variety of instruments ranging from a Chinese short-necked plucked lute to an Armenian double reed woodwind, a Japanese bamboo flute to a Mongolian horse head fiddle.
Featured are such musicians as Kayhan Kalhor, a kamancheh player from Iran; Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Syria; Cristina Pato, a Spanish bagpiper; and Wu Man, a Chinese pipa player.
This melding of musicians and instruments has been called “The Manhattan Project of Music.” It’s a movie that’s beautiful to hear.