J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

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

The 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 here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

In 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.

In 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.

Even 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.

Anyone 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.

It 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.

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