Silk Road was at its peak during the Han Dynasty, but its symbolism is still
very important throughout Asia. China explicitly invokes the Silk Road name for
a controversial regional development initiative critics have linked with
economic imperialism and increased militarism. In contrast, Yo-Yo Ma celebrates
the Silk Road as an institution that facilitated cross-cultural communication
and fellowship. Musicians from Japan to Spain (or as gaita-player Cristina Pato
would call it, Galicia) have joined his justly acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble. Oscar-winning
documentarian Morgan Neville profiles Ma and his collaborators in The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & the
Silk Road Ensemble (trailer
which opens tomorrow in New York.
a way, Ma was like Alexander, searching for challenges because he had no more
worlds to conquer in classical music. Evidently, he found himself jamming with
Kalahari Bushmen because of offhand comments he made on the Charlie Rose Show. It turns out, the
world music fusiony thing rather suited him. The Silk Road Ensemble started as
a Tanglewood experiment, but it was just too good to put on hold for long.
Although many members have international reputations of their own, they all
regularly reunite to make seamlessly beautiful sounds.
some cases, Ensemble members are also the leading proponents of the own
embattled national musical forms. This is particularly true of Wu Man, a
celebrated pipa player, who has launched an Alan Lomax-like effort to document
China’s vanishing musical traditions. Neville captures her collaboration with
the Zhang family of old school Chinese puppeteers in a sequence not unlike Yi
Cui’s doc, Of Shadows, but their
encounter is livelier.
more poignant are the famous exiles, like Persian Kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor,
who lost his entire family during the Iran-Iraq War. Unable to maintain his
artistic integrity under the Islamist regime, Kalhor is an émigré who still
does more to promote Persian culture internationally than any state authority.
Yet, he is also a prime example of why Neville’s approach is so hair-pullingly
frustrating. Clearly, Kalhor has a significant story to tell, but Neville only
allows him a mere sound bite before cutting away to the nest thumbnail sketch,
like an ADD-addled kid who ran out of Ritalin.
who is remotely interested in the Silk Road Ensemble will want to hear Kalhor’s
story in-depth and they will need more time to properly digest it. Frankly, it
seems like there is a disconnect between Neville’s glossy, EPK-style and the
Ensemble’s music, which evokes centuries of history, customs, and lore. Still,
Neville certainly has a charismatic leader to focus on in Yo-Yo Ma. It is easy
to understand how he has kept the accomplished group together for so long.
is a little harsh to put it so bluntly, but the musicians of the Silk Road
Ensemble deserve a better film treatment. Neville definitely leaves us wanting
know more about Kalhor and Wu Man (and maybe a little tired of watching Pato
take bows after performing with her own neo-traditional ensemble). The music is
wonderfully distinctive, but the film itself is rather pedestrian. Recommended
when it eventually airs on HBO, The Music
of Stranger opens tomorrow (6/10) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center
downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.
Labels: Documentary, Wu Man, Yo-Yo Ma