When violence forced him to leave Syria in 2001, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh experienced a crisis of faith. Growing up in Damascus, music was a thread connecting disparate cultures: the artists of his homeland, and the Bach and Beethoven he first learned to play. But when music couldn’t prevent the chaos roiling the country, he questioned its role in life. After immigrating to New York, Azmeh found renewed purpose playing with like-minded musicians under the tutelage of virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who urged them to create a global sound “like a giant horse fart.”

Of course, the Silk Road Ensemble’s six albums sound nothing like a gassy thoroughbred. But the combination of unusual instruments like the Galician gaita and Iranian kamanche is unexpected, as is the rich diversity of the group, which hails from nations along the 4,400-mile Silk Road and beyond. In The Music of Strangers, a documentary premiering today in New York and Los Angeles, director Morgan Neville provides the first detailed look at Ma’s orchestra.

The Silk Road Ensemble

The film, five years in the making, offers intimate glimpses into the lives of several musicians, many of whom escaped repressive regimes. Wu Man visits the conservatory where she practiced the pipa, a Chinese lute, to escape the Cultural Revolution. Kayhan Kalhor teaches a child Persian music on the kamanche, a bowed string instrument, before his exile from Iran. Azmeh shares his clarinet with youngsters in a Syrian refugee camp. Cristina Pato plays her gaita, a kind of bagpipe, at a traditional Galician dinner. These scenes highlight each musicians’ conviction in the empathetic power of music.

The musicians consider the Silk Road a place to experiment and bring an open-minded energy embodied in the affable, earnest Ma. In particularly telling scenes, the cellist says he started the ensemble, described as the “Manhattan Project of music,” largely out of self-interest. Ma, who launched his career at age 5, hoped to justify his life’s work by seeing what music could accomplish. As his friend John Williams says, growing up as a wunderkind, Ma never got to make an active choice. He founded the orchestra in 2000 to learn how music brings people together around the world; the 9/11 terror attacks reinforced the importance of that mission.

Yo-Yo Ma.Yo-Yo Ma.Participant Media

In The Music of Strangers, Ma is engaged and philosophical, but also silly. “He sets a model for the curious mind,” says Azmeh. Ma, who became a household name as a child prodigy and remained one by collaborating across genres from reggae with Bobby McFerrin to Argentinian tangos with Ástor Piazzolla, could rest on his laurels. Instead, he has brought musicians from across the world together to explore what the form can accomplish. “He’s fearless about trying new things,” says Azmeh. “Silk Road is a lab for people to play what they like, to learn to play in a different musical vocabulary.”

That vocabulary differs with each person. Some members are classically trained and only now learning improvisation. Others come from an oral tradition and cannot read music. But while Azmeh concedes that there are practical challenges to recording cross-cultural compositions, the artists share a firm belief in the importance of collaboration. “The conversation is richer than one person’s ideas alone,” he says.

Such a philosophy may seem counterintuitive to preserving cultural identity in an increasingly homogeneous world. But as Azmeh sees it, a culture’s sound has always been influenced by those around it. “The music of Syria hasn’t been on its own for all these years,” he says, “it’s at a crossroads of civilizations.” This cross-pollination encourages growth; isolation fosters stagnation. But even then, nothing happens in a vacuum. “People who come from a more isolated tradition are still affected by other things,” Azmeh says. “No tradition is a pure one.”

This spirit of enrichment through collaboration guides the orchestra, and Neville hopes it shapes viewers, too. “There’s a fallacy of purity, of traditionalist guardians of culture,” says the director, who’s work includes the documentaries Twenty Feet from Stardom and Best of Enemies. “Tradition needs to grow to be successful.” Several artists in the film devote themselves to preserving their musical culture—Pato, for example, founded the Galician Connection festival, and Wu records Chinese musicians in rural provinces—but also revel in creating a hybrid, universal sound.

Neville shares Ma’s goal of building empathy through shared cultural forms. “A place like Syria may seem very foreign and foreboding, but once you hear musicians from there, you start to hear your own traditions in their music,” he says. “Whenever we can put a human face on an Iranian or a Syrian or a refugee, we see that these people are not the other—they’re part of us.” The musicians in his documentary have wildly different backgrounds, but their music is universal.

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How Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble Got Its Spectacular Sound