‘The Music of Strangers’ takes Yo-Yo Ma around the world

Yo-Yo Ma in ‘The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’
Yo-Yo Ma in ‘The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’ HBO

With a documentary called The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, there’s no doubting that wonderful sounds will be in store. But that’s not all that’s on offer.

For, as directed by Morgan Neville, Strangers turns out to be as concerned with emotion as with performance, spending much of its time investigating how so much joyous music was able to come out of exploration, disturbance, even pain.

At the center of everything is 60-year-old cellist Ma, one of his generation’s most prolific and popular classical artists, with more than 90 albums and 18 Grammy wins to his credit, a total he self-deprecatingly dismisses by saying, “It’s all statistics.”

Strangers is the story of how and why in the year 2000 this consummate musician decided to branch out into unexpected areas and create the Silk Road Ensemble, an international music collective that has produced six albums and given concerts seen by 2 million people in 33 countries. And director Neville is very much the filmmaker for the job of telling it.

Best known for his Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, Neville has made any number of music-themed documentaries, including the Grammy-nominated trio Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied and Johnny Cash’s America.

As 20 Feet and its examination of rock ’n’ roll backup singers demonstrated, Neville is as expert at getting the human stories behind the songs as he is in capturing the music. Working with editors Helen Kearns and Jason Zeldes, he’s also experienced enough to engagingly blend Strangers’ numerous narrative strands, something that must have been harder to do than it looks.

It all begins with Ma, a former child prodigy who has performed for eight presidents and can be seen, in a delightful clip, upstaging Leonard Bernstein with a very serious face when he was just 7.

Yet because he started so young, Ma, brilliant as he was, couldn’t help feeling, “I never committed to being a musician, I just fell into it.” As friend and composer John Williams puts it, Ma faced a typical child prodigy problem: “How do you keep your interest up?”

Making things more difficult was the toll of Ma’s extensive touring. He estimates he has spent 22 of the 35 years he’s been married on the road. “I was so anxious, I threw up before every trip,” the musician reports, and his son, Nicholas, says he initially thought his father worked for the airport because he was always going there.

A warm and candid presence on film, Ma talks with feeling about his search for purpose and his intention to be in control of his life. Those goals, combined with Ma’s belief that creativity comes from cultures intersecting, led to an event one participant called “the Manhattan Project of music.”

That was 10 days of workshops held in 2000 at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., that Ma describes as “musicians getting together to see what happens when strangers meet.” Though the collaboration was at first tentative, it was finally so satisfying that Ma determined it had to go on, and the Silk Road Ensemble was born.

As wonderful as this music is to experience — the open-air performance in Istanbul that starts things off is especially infectious — Strangers does not shy from acknowledging that the philosophy behind this musical melding was initially criticized by some for being impure, a kind of cultural tourism.

Helping to counterbalance that is the film’s focus on a quartet of the Silk Road Ensemble’s more than 20 players, mini-bios of virtuosos from all over who share an attraction for the wider world. These include:

Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist born in Damascus, Syria, who laments that the world does not seem to care about his country’s plight and reveals that the civil war there stopped his composing for a time because it created “emotions that are far more complex than I can express in my music.”

Wu Man, a virtuoso on the pipa, or Chinese lute, who introduces the wild and crazy Zhang Family Band, now in its 11th generation of performers, to the world. “There is no East or West,” she says. “It’s just a globe.”

Kayhan Kalhor, a master of the kamancheh, or Persian spiked fiddle, whose life as a refugee has been marked by a series of painful tragedies.

Cristina Pato, who plays the gaita, a bagpipe from the Galicia region of Spain, known as the “Jimi Hendrix of the gaita” because of the innovation and intense emotionality she brings to her playing.

One of the paradoxes that unites these players is that their participation in the ensemble has heightened their commitment to the specificity of their own musical traditions, something that has happened to Ma as well.

“Through the process of going away, he found himself at home again,” says Nicholas, the musician’s son, and observing that process is one of this film’s many joys.

Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Angelika Plano

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

(out of five)

Director: Morgan Neville

Cast: Yo-Yo Ma

Rated: Unrated

Running time: 96 min.