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Forget more cowbell. According to the celebrated Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, what this crazy world needs now is more pipa (a Chinese version of a lute), more gaita (a bagpipe of Spanish origin) and definitely more kamancheh (an Iranian bowed string instrument).
That is the basic message of Morgan Neville’s “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” which ambitiously tries to capture the evolution of a cultural experiment involving a blend-ship of music from around the globe that began in earnest in 2000. So far, the loose collective of 50 or so members of Eurasian backgrounds has recorded seven albums (the latest, “Sing Me Home,” was released just this year) and performed for two million people in 33 countries.
Neville won an Oscar for shining a spotlight on notable back-up singers whose essential though mostly anonymous voices are heard on countless pop, rock and R&B classics in his 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” Now he turns his attention to the artists who joined Ma, and once again proves to be adept in bringing forth the intimate stories behind the music.
Where his account stumbles a bit is when it takes broader strokes at its subject. It often turns into a kind of rah-rah, “It’s a Small World” travelogue, filled with glossy “National Geographic” views of exotic landmarks and a relentless dancing camera that spins, rushes forward and pulls back as if engaged in an elaborate waltz. The performances themselves range from tentative rehearsals early on in archival footage to semi-polished, high-energy concerts.
But much like “20 Feet from Stardom,” the doc becomes a grabber whenever it focuses on the immensely skilled and unique individuals who form this melodic melting pot. The sounds they produce might be as diverse as their backgrounds. But they share the common goal of both promoting and preserving their heritage while employing art as a buffer against the discordant upheavals that have befallen their homelands—a worthy message repeated so often that it unfortunately becomes as overbearing as an anvil chorus version of ”Kumbaya.”
Follow several talented members of the ensemble as they gather in locations across the world, exploring the ways art can both preserve traditions and shape cultural evolution.