Review: The Music of Strangers

Director Morgan Neville continues his impressive canon of music documentaries with The Music of Strangers. The Oscar winning filmmaker of Twenty Feet From Stardom this time trains his gaze on Yo-Yo Ma’s groundbreaking musical project, The Silk Road Ensemble.

The Silk Road Ensemble is a not-for-profit organization that Ma started in 1998, and could be described as a kind of a multicultural artistic exchange. It was first inspired by the traditions of the historical Silk Road and most of the musicians are from countries that lie along that path.

There’s Kayhan Kalhor from Iran who plays the kamancheh, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh from Syria, and Man Wu from China who plays the pipa. The ensemble deviates far enough from the original road to include the likes of Christina Pato who plays the Galician bagpipes

The documentary focuses mostly on these four musicians, and of course Yo-Yo Ma. The organisation isn’t a political one, but the film itself does explore the backgrounds of these musicians, and how the political climate they grew up in shaped their lives. Wu for example was a product of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; Azmeh grew up during the great upheaval in Syria that continues today and we see him go to several Syrian refugee camps during the film; and Kalhor now lives in exile from Iran, separated from his wife, merely for expressing his opinions.

The one thing they all have in common is a love for the culture of their respective countries and a desire to share their culture with others.  Yo-Yo Ma is like a great conductor, bringing all the elements together.

From the outset Ma states the he didn’t want the ensemble to be thought of as some kind of cultural tourism that watered down its various ethnic elements. His belief is that any culture that does not adapt will get smaller. His inexhaustible exuberance is the driving force that has seen the ensemble showcase their unique blend of musical cultures throughout the world.

Obviously how much you enjoy the film will depend on how much you appreciate the music. For many, the Middle Eastern elements of their repertoire will register the strongest, and Kalhor and Azmeh undoubtedly have the more compelling stories to tell due to the misfortune of living through the most dramatic and unstable environments.

On the other hand, the Galician bagpipes may be more of a challenge for some, and while it’s no fault of Pato’s, the relative lack of conflict in her personal life results in a less interesting narrative.

The Music of Strangers is a testament to the universal language of music. It’s a bracing experience which nonetheless doesn’t really accumulate dramatically. Near the end there’s a sense that this is like a lovely journey with no destination, and then, as if sensing this, Yo-Yo Ma quotes T.S. Eliot thus:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Whether you’re a stranger to the music of The Silk Road Ensemble or not, they prove wonderful travel companions.    


The Music of Strangers is currently screening exclusively at Cinema Nova.

Richard Leathem @dickiegee