The Music of StrangerYou don’t want to miss seeing, and hearing, The Music of Strangers, a fresh breath of air in this season of poisonous political miasmas.

Yo Yo Ma, searching for how he fit in the world, despite his phenomenal gifts and recognition for being a cello players, realized that in traveling around the world to give concerts he had made friends with many musicians, in many different cultures.  Why not play together?  So it was his Silk Road ensemble came into being.  Since 1998 not only has a rotating ensemble of musicians played and toured together, but has composed music, taken performances to schools and embarked on partnerships with others to enhance education and bring music back into the lives of children and the community. For more see here and here.

The film, a documentary by  Morgan Neville, who also did the wonderful Twenty Feet From Stardom, is a joyful, instructive look at some of the players,  how they collaborate, invent, and play.

Chief among them is Yo Yo Ma himself, with his otherworldly cello, playing from his repertoire of Bach’s Cello Suites as well as joining the musical tumult with others.

Kinan Azmeh from Syria, blows a mean clarinet, leading the group at times into Middle Eastern melodies, or joining in traditional song from Galicia, Spain. Taste of American Blues surfaces.  Not only does he play, but he mourns what is happening in him homeland.  At one point he takes a bag of instruments and spends a few days with refugees children in one of the enormous camps in Jordan.

Kayhan Kalhor is from Iran.  Forced to leave during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, he did odd-jobs for a while, trying to introduce the native kamancheh, a bowed string instrument hundreds of years old, to those who had never heard the sound. He too has tried to return to his country, staying for a time and then fleeing as the politics turned and danger again threatened.

You won’t forget two of the women easily.  Wu Man is from China.  She plays the pipa, a stringed instrument that may remind you of a lute but with a speed and intensity that could be a part of a rock and roll band.

Cristina Pato, from Galicia, Spain, is a veritable whirlwind, playing the gaita (a celtic bag-pipe), singing and leading marches around the floor.

Silk Road Gaita

I would have liked a bit more about their actual process in putting together joint pieces, how leaders emerge, how final decisions are made, what is just promising and what ready for presentation.  I’m curious how the tunings of different instruments were brought together and if, for example, each piece has a particular cultural backbone.  Even so, it is quite wonderful to hear these strange and wonderful instruments find each other and, holding hands, as it were, sing all together.

Even more satisfying, and hopeful, as one of the musicians says, is that they play explicitly to move through walls and boundaries. Some have taken heat from national critics for “diluting” the ancient traditions. Their reply is to play together. Music, the universal language, is an overworked phrase, often without meaning.  Here they are demonstrating however difficult and mysterious, it is possible to join in happiness and play.  Recognition of each other is not just a phrase but deep knowledge come from intense work together.

Look for it locally, but here are some sites you can investigate further.

The Music of Strangers, with a film clip.

The Silk Road Project

Chicago Tribune review

NY Times review

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