MY EXPOSURE to Yo-Yo Ma was previously limited to an episode of The West Wing, after Josh got shot and was having PTSD, and Donna kept saying "Yo-Yo Ma rocks!" I thought that was dorky of Donna, but I thought it was cool that Yo-Yo Ma was on the show, and I liked the piece that he performed. In other words: limited knowledge.
The Music of Strangers is a documentary that further opened my eyes to Yo-Yo Ma. And you know what? He is one solid dude. Aside from playing the cello like an angel (not all angels play the harp), he also organized a supergroup of classical musicians in a project called the Silk Road Ensemble, the subject of this film. The original Silk Road, as nerds know, was a historic route for goods to leave the East for trade. This Silk Road is more of an exchange between East and West: Ma’s friends, from places like Iran, China, and Japan, bring their traditional instruments to Western-style classical music pieces and create a new sound, as well as a new interpretation of what’s “traditional” and “classic.”
In introducing us to members of Ma’s squad, we learn not only about cool old instruments but also about the current and historical context for their art. As the musicians explain, the culture of a nation is what’s celebrated—which also makes it the first target in war. Participating in a project like the Silk Road could seem like dilution of a cultural export, but in fact, it’s keeping it alive by letting it grow, protecting their heritage from death and destruction in a way nothing else can.
Aside from these big thoughts about What It All Means, The Music of Strangers is also nice because the music is beautiful—Yo-Yo even plays that one piece he played for Josh and Donna on The West Wing! I felt smart for having recognized classical music from TV; I feel even smarter for having watched this film.