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Yo-Yo Ma documentary celebrates the possibilities of music

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“The Music of Strangers,” an uplifting documentary by Morgan Neville, goes behind the scenes with the Silk Road Ensemble, the international group founded by cello master Yo-Yo Ma. (Courtesy Participant Media)

Morgan Neville knew he had his next documentary project when he met cellist Yo-Yo Ma and they bonded over the types of questions they were asking themselves.

“It was this idea of… why am I even doing this? If I do this, it’s got to mean something, That resonated for me. As a filmmaker you’re always asking those kinds of questions,” says Neville, Oscar-winner for “Twenty Feet from Stardom” and co-director of 2015’s “Best of Enemies,” who talked about his new film in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Opening in theaters on Friday, the documentary “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” is the story of Ma’s successful multi-cultural band of musicians and instruments from all over the world.

Ma started the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000 after hitting something of a mid-life crisis; he had been a child prodigy, famous since the age of 7, and wanted to do something more significant.

He assembled musicians including Chinese pipa master Wu Man, Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Iranian-born kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, and Galacian bagpiper Cristina Pato.

Neville took on the film in 2012.

“We kinda started not knowing what the film was going to be,” says Neville. “We went to shoot a Silk Road concert for PBS. But, you see the music and only understand a tiny fraction of what informs that music. You could do a concert and get only 10 percent, or you could do a documentary and get 90 percent.”

Neville marvels at the musicians’ diversity, and how each plays a specific role in the group. At the same time, they have in common a need to explore and expand their knowledge.

“They’re all on this Joseph Campbell-type journey,” Neville says. “We even talked about Yo-Yo being Yoda!”

The movie sets its theme in motion with a beautiful, exhilarating, free outdoor concert, shot in Istanbul near the Bosphorus waterway. During the show, the camera follows the different musicians and their instruments, and revels in the sounds they make all together.

“They loved doing that,” Neville says. “When they finished performing, somebody came up to them and said, ‘Do you guys play weddings?’”

The Silk Road Ensemble initially was criticized for diluting each culture’s original music. But Neville explains that, yes, this music is full of possibility and can make a difference in the world.

“To me, culture is hard to measure as a metric,” Neville says. “It’s soft influence. It’s not economics or politics. But the thing that music has is empathy, and I feel like that’s a thing in short supply today.”

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
Starring: Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man
Directed by Morgan Neville
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes

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