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‘Music of Strangers’ strikes a fine tune

Morgan Neville's documentary "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" opens today at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

You hear a lot these days about culture. As in, it’s important to respect the traditions that different peoples of the world abide by. Not just the ways they live and talk but also the values they hold, the customs they follow, the rituals to which they pay homage. The need for this is so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Except that it’s also a point of argument, too. Because what happens when cultures clash, as they have since the first moment one group of humans encountered another group – one that talked differently, that acted differently, that simply looked … different? The result quite often is fear and mistrust, and just as often violence. Some aspects of human interaction never seem to change.

So a balance has to be found, one that is inclusive instead of exclusive, one that recognizes – and even respects – differences while working hard to find at least a sense of common ground. And according to world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one good way to find that needed sense of community – regional, national and international – may be through music.

Ma is the focal point of Morgan Neville’s documentary “The Music of Strangers,” which carries the subtitle “Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.” It was back in the year 2000 when Ma, who spends so much time on the road that his son once thought he worked for the airport, had an idea: Why not invite a group of diverse musicians to participate in a musical experiment?

That experiment, which took place at the Tanglewood Music Festival, featured a unique confluence of players including a bagpiper from Spain, a clarinetist from Syria, musicians from China and Iran who play stringed instrument as exotic as they are unfamiliar, and a host of other players, most of whom we never get to meet up close and personal.

Which may be the only negative thing that I can say about “The Music of Strangers.” For while I appreciated getting to know the Galician bagpiper Christine Pato, the displaced Iranian Kayhan Kalhor and equally displaced Syrian Kinan Azmeh, I wanted to know far more than Neville is able to give us during his film’s 96-minute run time.

The problem, of course – and it’s hardly a problem at all – is that Neville has to make room, however languidly, for a theme. And he has to make time for the music.

The theme can be summed up in Ma’s declaration that “The clearest reason for music, for culture, is that it gives us meaning.” It is that meaning that comforts Pato when dealing with a mother who is losing her memory, that comforts Kalhor and Azmeh in their domestic alienation, that helped Chinese musician Wu Man survive her country’s Cultural Revolution.

And the music? To this untrained ear, it seems like a perfect blend between East and West, with room for everyone to add in a distinctive riff or three. As the Syrian Azmeh says, "Music … can it stop a bullet? Can it feed someone who is hungry? Of course it can’t."

It can, however, both nourish and help meld our disparate souls. And sometimes that’s enough.

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