The World on a String: Yo-Yo Ma's Music of Strangers 

New documentary chronicles the renowned cellist's Silk Road Project

Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road trek included much more than China and much more than music. He recruited musicians from nearly every corner of the planet and discovered a universal language.


Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road trek included much more than China and much more than music. He recruited musicians from nearly every corner of the planet and discovered a universal language.

The Music of Strangers--one of the best films of 2016 at the year's mid-point and, by far, one of the finest documentaries in recent memory--has arrived at our local cinemas just when we needed it most. At a particular time of painful racial division, this unexpected film reminds us that our collective purpose may best be understood through the universal language of music.

In 1942, when the winds of war were sweeping across the planet, T.S. Eliot wrote, "At the end of all our exploring, we will arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time." Nearly six decades later, cellist Yo-Yo Ma began his own exploration of our planet, resulting in what he called the "Silk Road Project," bringing together music from different histories and inspirations in one performing collective. What he found, and what is so magnificently captured in The Music of Strangers—a documentary about the project, is the music from our world's many cultures is individually beautiful but on those rare opportunities when it is brought together, it forms a majestic sound of meaning. Spoiler alert: The Music of Strangers will move you to joy one moment, tears in another.

Early in the film, we see grainy black-and-white newsreel footage, circa 1962, of maestro Leonard Bernstein standing before President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie.

"There has come to us a young man, aged 7, bearing the name Yo-Yo Ma," said Bernstein, ushering to the stage a small boy carrying a cello. "Now, here's a cultural image to ponder: a 7-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots."

The rest is musical history: More than 90 bestselling albums; 18 Grammys; degrees from Juilliard and Harvard; countless honorary doctorates; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and appearances on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, The West Wing and The Simpsons. Ma is undoubtedly the most famous cellist of this or any other era.

"But I'm trying to figure out who I am and where I fit in the world," says Ma in the film. "And it's a world I share with about 7 billion people. I remember Leonard Bernstein telling me something when I was a student in Harvard. He knew what we all know: that music is the only language we share."

That thought had been expressed countless times before and since, but Ma set out to test the theory in a new way.

He began a journey to each corner of the world, seeking out artists willing to be part of a much bigger sound. In the summer of 2000, those artists arrived at the Berkshire highlands of Massachusetts to experiment with their collective music. Audiences were appreciative but neither they nor the artists themselves truly knew what was happening.

"I was faced with the obvious question: 'Should we go on?' Not to go on just because we would like to, but to truly find a reason to go on," Ma says.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

"We were all in shock. I had a lot of time to think. Some thought that in the face of growing xenophobia, it might not be possible to showcase such diversity," says Ma, who had recruited artists from nations that many Americans feared or questioned. "We reexamined our purpose in the face of terror and great sadness. We had a responsibility to work harder."

The Music of Strangers takes us to many of the musicians' home nations, such as China, Syria, Spain, Iran and nations in southern Africa. In one fascinating scene, we see Ma visit the Bushmen of Africa's Kalahari Desert, which resulted in the cellist's landmark 1994 recordings with the Bushmen.

"I remember one night that unlocked all of this for me," says Ma, recalling a nighttime bonfire during which elderly Bushmen sang themselves into a trance and then began putting hands on members of their tribe, as if to heal them. "I asked them, 'Why? Is it your culture? Your religion?' They told me, 'It gives us meaning.'"

Ma, a soft-spoken, slight man, may not have set out to change the world—but what he found and what is so perfectly demonstrated in The Music of Strangers, is that, much like Eliot wrote about returning to where we started "and knowing that place for the first time," our collective journey is not necessarily to find our way home but to realize we've been there all along.

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The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble is not showing in any theaters in the area.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble
Rated PG-13 · 96 minutes · 2016
Director: Morgan Neville
Producer: Caitrin Rogers, Laura Freid, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann and Julie Goldman
Cast: Yo-Yo Ma

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