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Review: Bridging cultures with The Silk Road Project

Tom Long
The Detroit News

A meandering meditation on creativity, music and the enduring power of culture, “The Music of Strangers” works mostly because of the personalities it focuses on and the musical brilliance they have in common.

Directed with spirited, if sometimes disjointed, energy by Morgan Neville (“Best of Enemies,” “20 Feet From Stardom”), the film follows the evolution of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s world music supergroup, The Silk Road Project. The group’s ever-shifting lineup — most of its members are stars in their own right — includes some 60 players, but Neville wisely chooses to focus on five.

And each of those five has a unique story, as well as a near-blinding gift. First off, there’s Ma himself, a prodigy we see performing at age 8 before the Kennedys in the White House. Anointed with such fame from an early age, the grown Ma wants to branch out beyond classical music and so, in 2000, he decides to bring together musicians from different cultures. This becomes The Silk Road Project.

The film follows the group from 2000 to 2015, and for most of them political change in their home countries has an effect on their lives. Things are relatively stable for Syrian clarinet player Kinan Azmeh at the beginning; not so much later on. The stunning Iranian musician Kayhan Khalor, who plays a stringed instrument called the kamancheh, cannot make peace with his homeland and suffers through a series of tragedies. And Chinese pipa (it’s like an elaborate lute) virtuoso Wu Man sees her homeland shift as well.

The one musician who doesn’t encounter changes in her remote culture, and who breathes the most fire into the group onstage and off, is the rambunctious and rowdy (and green-haired) Cristina Pato who is — get this — a bagpipe player from a corner of Spain. It’s worth seeing the movie for this woman alone.

“The Music of Strangers” has perhaps too many deep thoughts and ruminations, leaving one aching to hear more of the actual music. But there’s no doubt that Ma has bridged a wide variety of cultures and created something magnificent.

Confession: After watching this film, I immediately bought a Silk Road CD and one by Pato. I’ll probably buy more.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

‘The Music of Strangers’

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language

Running time: 96 minutes