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Moving 'Music of Strangers' celebrates the cultural voices of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is the founder of the Silk Road Ensemble that is featured in the documentary "The Music of Strangers." - photo by Josh Terry
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS 3 stars Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato and Wu Man; PG-13 (brief strong language); Broadway Centre

The Music of Strangers tells the story of the Silk Road Ensemble, a collection of international musicians formed by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It is an excellent documentary that merges the beauty of music with the personal stories of the performers who create it.

Director Morgan Nevilles film begins with the ensembles most celebrated member. Interview clips from musical authorities such as composer John Williams are combined with reflections from Yo-Yo Ma to paint a brief portrait of Silk Roads founder. Viewers see black-and-white footage of the cellist as a 7-year-old boy performing on television for John F. Kennedy, and learn about how integral music has been in his life.

This musical absorption pushed Yo-Yo Ma to constantly seek out new projects to keep his creativity alive, such as a trip to Africa to explore the musical stylings of the Kalahari Bushmen. Eventually Yo-Yo Ma formed a musical consortium that would draw on the skills and cultures of numerous nations, and the Silk Road Ensemble was born.

The bulk of Nevilles documentary shifts from the ensembles founder to a collage of its members, toggled together with performance footage. Viewers meet famed musicians from around the world, such as Syrian clarinet player Kinan Azmeh and Wu Man of China, a rock star of a pipa player.

Cristina Pato is literally one of the most colorful members of the group, augmenting her passionate bagpipe playing with bright green highlights in her dark brown hair. Music of Strangers spends time in her Galicia, Spain, home, a place described by the documentary as rich in culture but poor in economy. But the most memorable figure to emerge from the Music of Strangers rundown is the Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor, whose life of personal tragedy deeply informs his music.

In fact, the personal pain and the deep conflict of the different musicians home countries adds a critical layer to the films effectiveness. Music of Strangers can be appreciated purely on a musical level by both lovers of world music and die-hard rock-n-rollers in need of a creative change of pace, but it can also be appreciated as a portrait of the people not just the musicians represented by the music.

Music of Strangers explores that pensive relationship between art and politics, detailing the role of music as an expression and a search for meaning out of conflict, fortunately without getting on much of a soapbox in the process.

This conflict helped to complicate the journey of the Silk Road Ensemble, which is a little hard to believe when you consider how easygoing and kind the members are. When they formed, they were criticized for being cultural tourists and for diluting the individual powers of the different ethnic styles they were merging. Then, after 9/11, resistance began to take new forms.

Through all of this, Neville maintains an easy tone that never gets far from the lyrical beauty of his subject matter. The film style is mostly routine aside from certain musical passages that use sweeping shots to dramatize performances, such as with an amusing group in China called the Zhang Family, who combine what they consider to be original rock n roll with ornate puppet shows. For a documentary on music, the visuals will more than suffice.

Altogether, The Music of Strangers is a moving and contemplative portrait of a powerful subject, and an argument for how much of that power is dependent on the people who create it.

The Music of Strangers is rated PG-13 for brief strong language; running time: 96 minutes.
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