Amid Chaos and Conflict, Yo-Yo Ma Makes Music His Peace Offering

The new film ‘The Music of Strangers’ follows the cellist and his cross-cultural ensemble as they create music to unify communities around the globe.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building after participating in a panel discussion on the role of art in diplomacy on April 20, 2015. (Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images)
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Jun 10, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

“So this is my cello. Have you ever seen one before?” Yo-Yo Ma asks in the opening of the documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

At first, his question appears playfully sarcastic. Ma is one of the most celebrated living classical musicians, and he and his cello are identifiable to many. But the film opens up to showcase a diverse crowd of musicians and their less recognizable instruments—from a kemancha to a pi-pa—demonstrating just how diverse instruments from around the globe can be.

The Music of Strangers, which arrives in theaters June 10, explores the Silk Road Ensemble, Ma’s global collective of musical virtuosos aiming to bridge cultures and foster peace.

“We want to be the light that dispels fear from society,” Ma told TakePart of the group.

“[The ensemble] works together in a way that makes for unified voices that are led by different leaders within the group at different times,” Ma said. Including players from various backgrounds has given the Silk Road Ensemble flexibility to work in far-flung communities and share its work with a broader audience. Since Ma established the group in 2000, the Silk Road Ensemble has recorded six albums and played in 33 countries.

“We tend to take culture for granted,” The Music of Strangers director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies) told TakePart. “Seeing other cultures where people who are artists pay a great price...reminds us that culture is, in fact, just as essential to who we are as our politics or religion or economics.”

The film profiles four ensemble members. Pi-pa player Wu Man wrestles to belong in both China and America as she works to preserve Chinese folk music; Galician bagpipe player Cristina Pato faces criticism from her community for her progressive style; the political climate in Iran has driven out Kayhan Kalhor, an expert at the kemancha (also known as the Persian spiked fiddle); and Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh struggles to compose music as civil war ravages his home country.

“Can a piece of music stop a bullet? Can it feed somebody who is hungry?” Azmeh asks in the film, adding that the war forced him to question the importance of art altogether.

But as the film follows Azmeh to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which is home to roughly 80,000 Syrian refugees, the power of music becomes clear. We see it as he improvises silly songs with a group of giggling girls, organizes a drum circle, and distributes instruments to refugee children—any one of whom could become the next rising flutist of his or her generation.

Kinan Azmeh with students. (Photo: Participant Media)

“The things the arts give us are the things we actually want,” Neville said. “The idea to be creative, collaborative, and inventive—these are all skills we want for our modern society.”

The Music of Strangers was recently dubbed in Arabic and is being shown in refugee camps in Jordan. Just this week, Wu Man, the pi-pa player, along with Kevork Mourad, a Syrian Armenian visual artist also featured in the film, visited a camp to teach creative arts workshops and share the film.

More than just an educational tool, Ma hopes the film will encourage viewers to see migrants not as “the enemy or the ones taking over jobs but actually people who could be highly educated and could contribute to society.”

“What we hope to encourage through the film, by creating an empathetic environment, [is that] people will think, ‘Hey, wait a minute. These are not foreigners.’ ” Ma said. “It’s not the ‘music of strangers.’ This is actually our music. This is our home.”