“The Music of Strangers” elegantly documents the origins and success of the Silk Road Ensemble and its many members. Directed by Morgan Neville, it follows famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma on his search to gather the most talented musicians from around the globe in order to create beautiful music that can transcend cultural divides.
Created in the early 2000s, the Silk Road Ensemble began with the convergence of numerous musicians at Tanglewood, a performing center those of us in the Northeast know as being a summer mecca for classical performances. A fever dream of Yo-Yo Ma, the group began as an attempt to join together the sounds of cultures across the world, and to use one of the most universal languages, music, to unite people.
While the ensemble has had many members over the years, those featured in the film are among the most prominent that agreed to join Ma, such as Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist, Kayhan Kalhor, the most well-known Kamancheh played from Iran, Wu Man, who hails from China and plays the lesser-known pipa, and Cristina Pato, whose soothing vocals and unique affliction for the Galician bagpipe rounds out the group.
Not only seasoned musicians, these members have managed to flourish through times of struggle, in their personal lives and in the societies in which they have grown. Kahlor discusses the dangers of his home country during its revolution, and how he lost his parents in the midst of such violence; Pato expresses her struggles with her mother’s deteriorating health and trying to find inner peace; and Azmeh laments the crisis in Syria and how it causes him to question the definition of “home.”
In a time of such divisiveness, both internationally and within each of these musicians’ home countries, this film provides a sense of hope. With the blending of cultures that does a magnificent job at not diluting a single one, the ensemble and Neville’s look inside what it means to each member shows that there need not be oppression, but that we instead find what unites us and celebrate it.