The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Project

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Wu Tong (vocals) and Yo-Yo Ma (cello) performing a duet during a Silk Road Ensemble concert © Khalid Al Busaidi, Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman

Many of us know Yo-Ya Ma as an amazing virtuoso cellist, a wonderful exponent of such great composers as Johannes Brahms, JS Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Antonin Dvorak.

But in a recently released film, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Project, we see this great cellist in the role of project leader and musicologist.

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Members of the Silk Road Ensemble © Liz Linder Photography

The film, a documentary, received its Australian premiere at the recent Sydney Film Festival. It represents a mighty journey of musical discovery into different musical styles and cultures as it follows some of the performers from The Silk Road Project.

Yo Yo MaYo-Ya Ma launched The Silk Road Project. (the name comes from the ancient trade route that links Asia, Africa and Europe) some 16 years ago at the prestigious Tanglewood Summer School at the Boston University College of Fine Arts, by bringing together a group of musicians from different countries and cultures.

The goal was to explore the music of other cultures and collaborate and experiment with a view to creating new compositions and performing them at the culmination of the festival.

The project was immensely successful and has been going from strength to strength ever since.

The project now boasts some 50 performing artists from all over the world, including the US, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Canada, Russia, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Mongolia and has released a number of CDs.

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The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performing in Oman © Khalid Al Busaidi, Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman

The project has several mission statements, but the one that resonates most with me is this one: Silkroad is the collective of rooted explorers, inclusive independents, storytelling musicians, passionate learners, connected nomads and cultural entrepreneurs.

Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), and Nicholas Cords (viola) performing with fellow Silk Road Ensemble musicians © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), and Nicholas Cords (viola) performing with fellow Silk Road Ensemble musicians © Todd Rosenberg Photography

The film is a blend of performance footage, interviews with musicians and archival film.

Director Morgan Neville, answered questions after the screening, and explained the wealth of material they gathered during several years of filming was enough to create several documentaries, and the challenge was choosing what material to keep.

UCSB Arts & Lectures - The Silk Road Ensemble 2/21/15 Granada Theatre

Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh), Sandeep Das (tabla), and Mike Block (cello) performing at The Granada Theater, Santa Barbara © David Bazemore

Those profiled in the film include Kayhan Kalhor, a kamancheh player from Iran, and Kinan Azmeh, a clarinettist from Syria — who speak about the threatened traditions of their homelands.

The appeal of the film is in the personal stories and the significance of music in each of the performers’ lives and cultures, rather than rather than a compelling storyline.

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The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performing at the Mondavi Center © Max Whittaker

The film is about hope, about making connections between cultures and finding our common humanity through artistic expression.

The most inspiring and compelling content of the film is the footage and interviews with Yo-Yo Ma himself, the driving force behind The Silk Road Project.

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Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh) with Yo-Yo Ma (cello) during a Silk Road Ensemble concert in Izmir, Turkey © Aykut Usletekin, courtesy of International Izmir Festival

Music for him represents a profound way of connecting with other human beings, other cultures, which is not surprising, given he studied anthropology as part of a Liberal Arts degree at Harvard.

A deep yet humble thinker, he admits: “I’m always trying to figure out, at some level, who I am and how I fit in the world, which I think is something that I share with seven billion other people,” Ma says.

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The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma © Magdalena Lepka

At a point in his career where he is able to choose what he does, Yo-Yo Ma illustrates his desire to only be involved in meaningful projects by revealing the fact that he has been away for 22 years of the 34 years he has been married.

If his work takes him away that much, he wants it to be for projects and causes that aim to make a real difference in the world.

And The Silk Road Project certainly does that.

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The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performing in Oman © Khalid Al Busaidi, Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman

The film is being shown in a range of cinemas in the US and Canada over coming months, but it’s not clear if the film will get a run in Australian theatres: fingers crossed!

Meldi Arkinstall, CD-Music Reviewer, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

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Silk Road Ensemble… courtesy of the artists

As musicians, we transcend technique in order to seek out the truths in our world in a way that gives meaning and sustenance to individuals and communities. That’s art for life’s sakeYo Yo Ma, Nancy Hanks Lecture, 8.4.2013

Watch the Trailer

Meldi Arkinstall, CD-Music Reviewer, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

 

 

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