The Music of Strangers August 24th, 2016


This week I finally went to see The Music of Strangers, the 2015 documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, the world-fusion band created some years ago by cellist Yo Yo Ma.The music is an enchanting mix of east, west, north and south, classical and jazz… and, understandably, it took some time for the group, and the music, to coalesce.

A former child prodigy, it turns out that the most famous cello player in the world never really felt like the author of his own destiny. (His son reports growing up thinking his dad worked at Boston’s Logan Airport, since he was always going there.) Hence the search for something more than his decades of concert touring, resulting in the Silk Road Ensemble. The group aims to promote cultural awareness and harmony through touring and education initiatives intended to bring comfort and understanding to a hurting world.

When I told my 21-year-old daughter I was going to see the film, she recalled Ma’s appearance in the kids’ animated series Arthur, in which the character D.W. addresses Ma as “Yo Mama!” (I still think Arthur was the best-written children’s show ever made.) Ma also appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, and the delightful clip is included in the film.

The Music of Strangers also goes into some depth to profile its various members, including Kayhan Kalhor, master of the Persian kamancheh, a stringed instrument played like a cello (though quite different in both appearance and sound). Kalhor is a tragic figure, for whom the plight of his Iranian family and countrymen is etched in the lines on his face. He rarely smiles, and we are happy for him when we learn that he has married… though eventually it is decided that he cannot live in Iran with his bride, and theirs becomes a Skype marriage.

In the film, Kalhor’s sadness is contrasted with the exuberance of Spaniard Cristina Pato, who plays Galician bagpipes. You read that right–bagpipes, from Spain. She is one of only three women in the ensemble of seventeen (really, Yo Yo? that’s all you could find?), but her feminine charisma, shall we say, more than compensates. If you doubt that a woman can look sexy playing the bagpipes, check this out! (One wonders how the men stay focused on their scores.)

Kalhor and Pato and the other ensemble members are all passionate about preserving and furthering their instrument’s heritage, and their association with Ma and ensemble has brought them to world prominence. This video showcases both Pato and Kalhor and gives the flavour of this wonderful mix of artists and musical styles.

All that’s missing is a Hardanger fiddle player.



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