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Movie review: Yo-Yo Ma finds connection in ‘Music of Strangers’

July 7, 2016

Home, as they say, is where the heart is — and for celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the fascinating, globe-spanning family of musicians he has gathered to form the Silk Road Ensemble, home is where music is being made and shared.

Home, as both physical place and emotional construct, is at the heart of “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” director Morgan Neville’s music-filled and incisive look inside what may be Ma’s crowning career achievement.

Neville, who profiled backup singers in the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” focuses first on Ma, the Paris-born, New York-raised son of Chinese parents, who took up the cello at age 4. Now, at 60, Ma has recorded 90 albums, won 18 Grammys, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and been named a Kennedy Center honoree. And, as the movie shows, he’s one of the few people to appear on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and be parodied on “The Simpsons.”

With the Silk Road project, which Ma launched at Tanglewood in 1998, he is first among musical equals. In the film, Ma talks about the formation of the Silk Road Ensemble, gathering musicians from all over the world to share their cultures and influences, to create music that highlights the best of all of them.

Ma talks about the early criticism of the project, which was derided as “cultural tourism,” and how he and other musicians kept at it because, as he says, “you have to have conviction in the genuineness, in the power, of your ideas.”

Neville profiles some of the far-flung musicians who play in the Silk Road Ensemble. They include:

• Kinan Azmeh, a clarinetist from Syria, who has seen his country torn apart by civil war.

• Wu Man, from China, who was in the first generation of students after Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where she learned to play the traditional Chinese four-stringed instrument, the pipa.

• Kayhan Kahlor, exiled from his home in Iran since the Green Revolution of 2009, and a master at the kamancheh, a gourd-shaped bowed string instrument.

• Cristina Pato, called “the Jimi Hendrix of gaita,” the traditional bagpipes of Galicia, her home province in northwest Spain.

Neville weaves these musicians’ stories together into a vibrant story of artists trying to reconcile their pursuits with a world that may not see the necessity of culture. As Azmeh asks, in a moment of self-doubt, “Can a piece of music stop a bullet? Can it feed someone who’s hungry?”

“The Music of Strangers” ultimately gives Azmeh, and the audience, reason to believe in the power of art. Through the music (which is copious, and a great advertisement for the companion CD), Ma and his fellow musicians build a cultural home for nomads like them — a safe space where people are judged not by nationality but by their talent and humanity.

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