The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

The Flower recently discovered “cultural appropriation” with an (shall we say) appropriate level of outrage. Quoth the Flower, “It’s so stupid!” OK, maybe not the most articulate of responses, but when she calms down, she points out that all cultures steal from other cultures. Which is undeniably true and, until relatively recently, uncontroversial. So, it was nice to see this movie about the Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma’s group of great world musicians that go around playing a mixture of Western music and the music of other cultures on a mixture of instruments.

He's had their food, but apparently they have a WHOLE COUNTRY!

Here, Ma visits the mysterious country of “Cheye-Na”.

It didn’t grab The Boy; he’s not, as I’ve observed before, particularly musical (somehow). He said it wasn’t bad but since he doesn’t really relate to music all that well, he had a hard time staying focused. Of course, I loved it. It encapsulates, to me, all the greatest things about music. One of the recurring pieces throughout is Bach’s Suite Number 1 for Cello in G-major, which Ma is famous for playing, and which is played in various forms throughout, from solo cello, to accompanied, to (at the end) a backdrop to an old man playing a Chinese melody over it on the flute.

You can (and should if you like music) check out Silk Road Ensemble on YouTube. They do everything from Persian traditionals to modern Argentinian art music. That latter video features Cristina Pato, a Galician bagpiper/pop star (in Galicia before she got bored of that life) who brings a lot of energy to the proceedings and keeps things grounded. (Any music that involves someone whoopin’ and hollerin’ can’t be too stuffy.) Actually, it’s chock full of great musicians playing exotic (to our ears) instruments, but Pato stood out for me because I had totally forgotten that the Galician gaita (bagpipes) was a thing.

The Scottish dress up some of their more fetching girls as if they were bagpipers, but I never saw one play.

This guy’s not even in the band. He just picked up whatever and started following the hot chick.

Anyway, not a lot of dialogue here. It’s mostly about the music, and the narrative (such as it is) is Yo-Yo Ma’s journey from “a guy who’s always played classical music because that’s just what he did” to “a guy who has rediscovered the joy of music by breaking out of the mold and playing all kinds of things with all kinds of people, and who can now appreciate the music of his youth.”

Kind of a cool thing. On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter: Well, it’s music, which isn’t as universal as musicians like to think, but pretty important to those of us who dig it. It’s also Yo-Yo Ma’s story, as mentioned, but lightly. You don’t want to go for a biography if you’re not into (and open to) music.
  2. Execution:  Well done. Again, music heavy. But there are some nice visuals to go along with the music.
  3. Bias: Well, not a lot of time is spent on “cultural appropriation”. I tend to think that’s a good thing. The very name “Silk Road” should conjure up enough of a rebuttal for those who insist on arguing the point.

Good fun. Worth checking out.

They're handy that way.

Here, they take a break before finishing the garage.

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