Silk Road Ensemble Comes Home in New HBO Documentary

Friday, March 03, 2017 - 03:00 PM

From left to right: Vocalist and sheng player Wu Tong, violinist Johnny Gandelsman and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh perform at a promotional event for the upcoming documentary 'The Music of Strangers.' From left to right: Vocalist and sheng player Wu Tong, violinist Johnny Gandelsman and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh perform at a promotional event for the upcoming documentary "The Music of Strangers." (Kim Nowacki / WQXR)

Yo-Yo Ma founded Silkroad in 1998 as an organization dedicated to the virtues of multiculturalism and the exchange of musical and artistic ideas. A musical collective with the same mission, the Silk Road Ensemble, soon followed. It was named after the ancient trading route that facilitated the exchange of goods between places as geographically distant as Luoyang and Rome.

It’s fitting, then, that earlier this week, several Silk Road Ensemble musicians came together at Grand Central Terminal, another crossroads in one of the world’s busiest cities. They were there for a performance to promote the wide release of The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble, Morgan Neville’s documentary film that probes the musical souls of several of the ensemble’s members. The film grapples with questions that are difficult to answer, such as the meaning of artistic expression, and probes concepts that are equally difficult to describe, such as home and community.

Through their performance, the ensemble demonstrated how music can upend the boundaries we have come to expect when it comes to tradition and genre. In fact, for clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, there is no such things as genre. He sees music — much like geography — as a continuum. “I don’t see where the Middle East stops and the East begins or the West begins,” he mused ahead of the performance. “What do these mean? Where's the line between Mozart and Duke [Ellington]? When we cook, naturally we try to combine things we like. So I think that should be the nature of what we do, not the exception.”

Kinan Azmeh teaching music in a Syrian refugee camp


This mixing of musical traditions defines the sound of Silk Road, and explains how their musical performance effortlessly welded the sounds of various percussion instruments, a viola, a sheng and — thanks to Cristina Pato — bagpipes.

Pato is from Galicia, a region in northwest Spain that has a deep cultural connection with a gaita, an instrument with roots in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s a type of bagpipe, and Pato has shared a personal bond with it since she began playing at the age of four. The instrument itself is a microcosm of cultural exchange. She told the story of how the bagpipes made their way from the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe, and how every culture the bagpipes touched has its own history with the instrument.

A part of Pato’s musical identity is her dedication to arts education. “Seeing how much the arts can change and turn around lives, not only in the school but in the community, helped me understand my path,” she revealed. Music and art were an essential fixture of her childhood, and she explained that she “can’t imagine an education without art.” Today, Pato writes a bimonthly arts education column for the newspaper El Correo Gallego — it’s her way of staying connected to home.

Bagpiper Cristina Pato as she appears in the film


“Home” is a central theme of Silk Road, its music and the upcoming film. The word is loaded with meaning, and that meaning varies between the people of the world. For Azmeh, the concept of home is broad and wonderfully complex. “Home is the place you want to contribute to without having to justify it,” he said. “Home is the place where you wish well for. And it can start with your own immediate family and grow into the whole universe.” In this way, your definition of home grows as you experience the world and discover yourself. In Azmeh’s view, feeling at home is a signifier that you’ve begun to engage and interact with the community — and that, he says, is a wonderful thing to experience.

Watch The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble on HBO on Monday, March 6 at 8 pm. Below, Cristina's appearance on NPR's “Tiny Desk” concert series.


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