Film telling the story of the international musical collective created by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. A portrait of a bold musical experiment and a global search for the ties that bind.
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So, this is my cello.
Have you ever seen one before?
THEY START PLAYING
The many faceted career of cellist Yo-Yo Ma is
a testament to his continual search
for new ways to communicate with audiences...
..Mr Ma maintains a balance between his engagements and his solo...
..He's recorded over 90 albums,
including more than 17 Grammy Award winners...
..studied at the Juilliard School...
..President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
After Mr Ma's remarks tonight,
we will have an opportunity to ask questions...
So without any further ado, please welcome Yo-Yo Ma.
I'll start off with this. There's an old joke.
A six-year-old boy tells his father,
"When I grow up, I want to be a musician."
And the father looks at the son,
shakes his head sadly, and says,
"I'm sorry, son, you can't do both."
I think when I was a kid, a lot of things just happened.
There has come to us this year
a young man aged seven,
bearing the name Yo-Yo Ma,
a Chinese cellist playing old French music
for his new American compatriots.
Being good at something can carry you really far
for a long period of time,
and not require a lot
of introspection, right?
Because... you're good at it and everyone tells you that.
I would think that somebody who has mastered his art
so early in life, so completely,
would have the problem that most wunderkinder have,
which is, how do you keep your interest up?
That's part of my problem. When you grow up with something,
you kind of don't make a choice.
I never committed to being a musician.
You know? I just did it, I fell into it.
I was interested in a lot of things, but...
I didn't particularly pursue any of those.
Leon Kirchner said to him when he was young,
"You're a phenomenal musician, but you haven't found your voice."
And this notion was stuck in my dad's mind.
"What does that mean? How do you do that?"
I think he started looking for answers.
I'm always trying to figure out at some level
who I am and how I fit in the world,
which I think is something
that I share with seven billion other people.
I was calling my mum in Damascus before... before you guys came in.
And she's like, "Oh, Kinan, did you clean the place?"
I'm like, "Yes, Mum, it's OK."
-She wants to make sure...
-Mums are always mums.
No, she wants to make sure that the CDs are not here, because, you know,
they're there and, you know, it's like, "Is it all tidy?"
I said, "Yes, I've tried my best. It's going to be fine."
I mean, growing up in Damascus was great.
Just had, you know, lots of friends and family.
I don't think of myself as somebody who just,
you know, packed his stuff and left, actually.
I mean, I still have a little apartment back in Damascus.
And my parents are still there.
I miss it a lot. I do miss it.
Now I'm thinking a lot, like, "What is home?
"Is it where your friends are? Is it where your family are?
"Is it the place where you grew up
"or is it the place that... where you want to die?"
I mean, you know, all the...
all these questions, and I think now I'm realising that
it's basically the place where you feel you want to contribute to
without having to justify it.
And here is your coffee,
whoever wants my little Arabic coffee.
I mean, since I left Syria, lots of things have changed.
There's always a fight in each one of us
between believing in the power of the human spirit
and dreading the power of the human spirit.
when the Syrian revolution started...
I found myself experiencing emotions that are, by far,
more complex than...
than what I can express with my music.
So the music fell short,
and I found myself not able to write any music.
Like, can a piece of music stop a bullet?
Can it feed somebody who's hungry? Of course, it doesn't.
You question the role of art altogether.
When I was a student at Harvard,
Leonard Bernstein came to visit.
In his lectures, he was searching
for a universal musical language.
That idea stuck with me ever since.
What's the relevance of all this musical linguistics?
Can it lead us to an answer
of Charles Ives' unanswered question, "Whither music?"
And even if it eventually can...
..does it matter?
The world totters, governments crumble,
and we are poring over music.
Out of the 35 years I've been married,
I've been gone for 22 of those years, away travelling.
I used to throw up before every trip,
you know, just... I would just feel so awful and anxious,
and just like, you know...
it's like I'd get so paralysed.
What is my role?
I'd better find a good reason to say, "Why am I doing this?"
Play... play a song.
Which song? Um...
Play... Iron Man.
Let's own it!
My interest is kind of jump out of the box...
..not only limiting myself as a Chinese musician or pipa player.
Thank you, thank you.
Hey, wait. What do you do? This...
I mean, Wu Man was not supposed to be here.
She was just supposed to be a music professor, right,
at the Central Conservatory or somewhere in China.
I remember 1966,
start of the Cultural Revolution.
And then my parents actually asked me to learn music...
to escape from that situation.
Wu Man was in the first class of students
that re-entered Conservatory
after the Chinese Cultural Revolution,
and she became a sensation overnight.
We had no information about Western culture.
Right after revolution...
..everything was destroyed, culturally,
so we are, I guess, standing on the ruins,
dreaming, "What's the next music?"
Oh! Surprised they open.
It's all very different.
Isaac Stern gave a masterclass here,
right here on this stage.
It's like opened another idea.
It opened the door to me.
"American orchestra, that's... that's very interesting."
I wanted to see what's going on outside China.
In the '80s, when I was asked in an interview
about what my next project might be...
What's next for you?
I'm casting about for something, anything,
I said that I had always...
I said, "I have always been fascinated by" - guess what?
The bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.
I think he went because he wanted...
He wanted to put some dirt in his bones.
He wanted to get down into the soil.
He wanted something that was going to radically alter
his ways of thinking about things.
Where the hell is the F?
There we go.
I'll tell you one thing that stayed with me
that actually became the event
that unlocked all of this.
They do a trance dance...
THEY SING AND CLAP
..and I was invited to participate.
They get into trance,
and then they lay hands on people who need healing.
I asked the women why they do their trance ritual...
..and they said the clearest reason
for music, for culture, for medicine, for religion.
They said, "Because it gives us meaning."
So one day, I sat with Yo-Yo at the cafe
and we were talking about where creativity comes from...
Where new ideas come from.
And so he drew on a napkin at the bar.
He drew circles intersecting.
And then he shaded the intersections and said,
"This is, you know... this is a culture,
"this is another culture, and in the intersection,
"that's where new things will emerge."
The Silk Road Project - we started as an idea
a group of musicians getting together
and seeing what might happen... when strangers meet.
We went and scoured from Venice through to Istanbul,
central Asia, Mongolia and China,
looking for incredible talent.
This was like the Manhattan Project of music.
We invited about 60 performers
and composers from the lands of the Silk Road,
meeting in a kind of workshop.
No-one knew what was going to happen.
"Did Yo-Yo go off his tracks or something?
"What... What did he drink?" You know?
We gathered in the summer of 2000 in Massachusetts.
I was scared to death.
Yo-Yo Ma is, of course, a golden child.
He can touch anything and do anything,
and everything... Everybody thinks it's great.
But you could not expect
that someone from Africa or China picks up
on the subtleties of a culture that is not their own.
A lot of people thought that what we were doing was not pure.
It's, uh... What is it called?
Let's go. Yeah.
This is basic rhythm.
I mean, just not the accent.
Try... dut-dut, ba-ba-ba-ba.
Kayhan, he's such a well-known figure in Iran,
and he was here at the very beginning.
So the nail going back and forth, right?
Yeah. Right, left, two rights.
My intention is to represent my culture
and the contribution
that this very old culture made to human life.
If you go back, you know, in the beginning of the 20th century,
every Eastern culture was so fascinated with West...
You know, the technology, cars, and music, of course.
My instrument, kamancheh,
it was not being taught.
And I was really lucky,
because I got to professional music very early,
so I had the chance to work with the older generation.
Kayhan, he brings you closer to the horse
or to the cow or to the source,
you know, that you forget.
But Kayhan has had a very tragic life.
You realise that your life's not going to be the same anymore.
I was 17...
My parents decided that I had to leave.
I just walked... walked, you know, out...
out of the country like that.
I... I worked little by little in every country, kind of farm work.
Turkey for nine months, and then Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy.
Yeah, I had a little backpack... and, um... I had a kamancheh.
That was it. Yeah.
When I left...
meeting a lot of different world musicians...
that was very attractive to me.
I always wanted to do something outside of my culture.
I think that was
a very important turning point in my career.
How's it going, Kayhan?
Uh, fine. We definitely need more rehearsal time.
But... um, they're very good musicians,
and they're much better than yesterday,
so... there is hope.
The Tanglewood workshop was fantastic,
because we don't speak necessarily perfect English
or perfect Chinese or perfect Persian,
but we speak perfect music language.
Some projects, you know at the end of it, that's wonderful.
It was a great thing, but it's done.
This one... is different.
You make a connection. You make a cultural connection.
You make a connection to another human being.
That's very precious.
We were faced with the decision, "Should we go on or is this it?"
And we were very careful to try to not just say
we should go on because we would like it to.
What's the reason for going on?
Of course, the major concern is human loss.
I mean, do you know if there were many people in the building?
Oh! Another one just hit!
Something else just hit. A very large plane
just flew directly over my building, and there's been another collision.
-Can you see it? I can see it on this shot.
Something else has just... that looked more like a 747.
We just saw a plane circling the building.
I was in a hotel room at nine o'clock the morning of 9/11.
My wife called me and said,
"Turn on the television. Something's happening."
I saw a large plane, like a jet,
go immediately heading directly in towards the World Trade Center...
It was surreal.
You know, nation was in shock.
And I had a lot of time to think.
We really wondered that, in the face of the xenophobia,
it might just not be possible to do this anymore.
Everybody, in the face of disaster,
re-examines who they are in their purpose.
We are a group that has so many disparate elements.
We could have been a group of adversaries, essentially.
And I think all of us kind of knew that, you know,
we had a responsibility to...
..to work harder.
This piece is called Quartet to the End of Time,
and it's written by a composer named Olivier Messiaen.
He wrote this while he was a prisoner of war during World War II.
How does Messiaen do that?
How do you express incredible grief or eternity and love?
You add a little vibrato,
and you suddenly feel that you might be bathed
and blanketed by the warmth of an intense light.
That love is mythic,
eternal and unconditional love.
It's a paradox.
By trying to kill the human spirit,
the answer of the human spirit is to revenge with beauty.
Culture doesn't end.
It's not a business deal where,
at the conclusion of the business deal, it's done.
You know, it's not an election cycle.
It's about keeping things alive and evolving,
and so we decided to go on,
and then that's when all of our trouble began.
Cristina is one of those people
that we were lucky to meet through Osvaldo.
He said, "Guys, you have to work with Cristina.
"She is amazing."
She brings... something...
so sensual, so... earthy.
She needs to be here,
because she brings something that is essential
to the universal soul and it was missing.
There is something very primitive about the sound of the gaita.
To me, it's like hearing my father speaking.
In the generation I come from, it's like you have two choices,
of playing soccer or playing bagpipes,
if you were born in Galicia.
If I ask you to think about Spain
and to think about what is
the first music that comes to your mind...
..Galicia doesn't have anything to do with that.
Galicia is in the northwest corner of Spain,
and geographically speaking,
it has been always kind of isolated.
It has its own language, its own culture,
and if you were to shrink everything to just one sound,
the sound of the bagpipe is the sound of Galicia.
That part of Spain...
is culturally rich and economically poor.
Cristina is hugely conscious
of what her friends and family go through in Galicia.
I knew exactly what the tradition meant to the elder generation.
But I was excited about everything
that was happening in the present tense.
It was like something explosive.
She took the instrument to an extreme
that people could not even think about.
She's the Jimi Hendrix of the gaita.
But, you know, I don't think everybody likes Jimi Hendrix.
When you play an instrument that really represents
your country or your area of the world,
that has implications.
The first bad reviews I got were from the kind of people
that really wants to preserve pure, traditional Galician music,
and some of them were not very nice to me.
I was 18 years old.
I wasn't thinking about any other political meaning.
I just played bagpipes.
One day I woke up and I saw myself doing that for the rest of my life,
and I didn't like that feeling.
I decided to put all that life away and go away.
I didn't even bring my bagpipe.
CHEERING AND WHISTLING
I mean, I moved to New York about 10 days before 9/11 happened.
And do I say it was easy?
It wasn't easy, because all the stereotypes come.
And, you know, you're judged by the way you look,
and I had a big beard at that time.
I was born in Paris.
We moved to New York,
and I had nothing to do with that,
except things just changed around me.
The way things look, smell, taste.
And it was confusing.
A lot of friends said, "Why are you going to America?
"You're crazy." And... I was crazy, actually.
Nobody know what a pipa was.
The very first thing that I learned
was that my experience as kamancheh player
would not count as anything.
It was zero.
The moment you place yourself in a different context...
..then you have to stretch yourself,
because nobody knows the pipa or the kamancheh or the gaita.
I worked in a restaurant. I drove a cab.
But I wanted to learn,
I wanted to study and become a better musician.
Play in a Chinatown with... local musicians,
you know, factory worker, taxi driver.
That's the only way I keep it up.
The good thing about being in New York,
everybody comes from a different place,
and we all bring our roots.
Those roots get re-rooted here.
Definitely, America's very different.
But I'm more interested in actually appreciating the differences...
What you have that I don't have.
Not that I want to take it away from you,
no, but I want to learn from it, you know?
I do remember a press conference
which was one of the first times that we got up as a group
to talk about what we did in front of cameras, in front of the press.
And they were asking questions along the lines of, you know,
"It's like you're taking this traditional music,
"you're mixing it together, and you're diluting,
"you know, these traditions."
-Nick, you want to go?
I was just terrified.
Share a little bit about...
We were not at the point of describing it
as a family or as this creative cauldron.
We had none of that, really, to stand on.
Thanks, everybody, for being here.
I'm going to go to the bathroom.
To try to describe what we were trying to do,
what this meant and all that was... was a nightmare.
I knew that whatever we did,
there was going to be naysayers from all sides.
-Kinan and Wu Man, are you ready?
Yes, criticism hurts.
But you actually have to have conviction
in the genuineness and the power of your ideas.
And I'm sort of saying, "Gee, let's take a chance."
What a beaut!
This project, it adds your voice.
I think this is what is exciting about the journey is,
you look for your voice, you know?
Sometimes you think you found it,
and then once you have it, it changes again.
Oh, look, look, look. They're playing badminton.
Oh, yeah, let's go see this.
This is... I love this.
That's great. That's great.
It's very, very necessary for me to go and live in Iran,
because what happened after the revolution...
all of the better teachers moved out.
I went back 2002 to teach Persian music.
I think living with tragedy for many years
and being alone is really, really tough.
So when he moved back to Iran...
he started teaching, met Zohreh...
and it changed his life.
It's very dangerous.
The Iranian government really keeps their eye on artists like Kayhan
and other musicians that are quite popular.
They were warned that they should not be participating
in conversations about what's happening in Iran.
One thing that I cannot accept is violence.
I've been outspoken, I've been active,
you know, to try to help that.
Did anything happen to you personally?
Yes, but, you know, I... I wouldn't want to talk,
you know, to camera about it.
I can choose to be part of that society or not,
and... and that's not a very idealistic society
for me to be a part of.
So I had to leave.
But... Zohreh stayed.
I haven't been back for five years now, yeah.
You know, I miss her,
and I miss my homeland,
and I always want to go back and live there.
I haven't been able to do it so far.
But I think it... it will happen.
Yeah, I think I missed one.
OK, guys, all right. CHATTERING
OK. I'd like to ask you something.
I would like a very free rhythm
and almost nothing.
It's sort of intimate and atmospheric and...
So, how does it go?
It can go... It can do something there.
OTHERS JOIN IN
Good. Something like that.
Mongolian birds' wings fluttering.
And if you want to do...
you know, it could be wind, right? So...
-Is that OK?
-Yeah. Let's do it.
So it should sound like a giant horse fart.
You know? Like... HE SNORTS, THEY LAUGH
Back to the top.
In the States, the first few years was really difficult.
But music circle and the music community is very small.
So when you're interested,
you went looking for something,
and definitely, it's there or there
if you pay attention.
My instrument, nobody knows it.
And I remember one day, I get phone call.
"How come this string quartet wanted to work with me?"
She is a total rock star.
She started playing with so many different people.
It's like, "I need a pipa player!" "Call Wu Man."
In America, people think you're Chinese.
You play Chinese instrument and from China.
But when I go back to China, they say, "Oh, you're American."
"You... you don't know today's China."
When you leave your home, your country,
and you have this picture of it in your mind.
When I went back, nothing fit that picture I had in my mind.
People were even speaking differently.
I think the challenge in Galicia right now is
the same challenge that exists in the rest of the world,
which is keeping your roots alive.
There is no tradition that exists today
that was not the result of really successful invention.
But unless a tradition keeps evolving...
...it naturally becomes smaller and smaller.
That leads me back to China,
to rediscovering "What is China's music?"
None of us can prove anything about how...
much of the past we carry with us.
I had thought that this is, in Yo-Yo's mind...
..his investigations into his own past.
My father was born in 1911...
and he left China when he was about 25 to go to France to study.
And he wrote about that fusion of what Chinese music
might sound like with French techniques of composing.
Isn't that strange that, so many years later...
the apple did not fall that far from the tree?
SHE CALLS OUT
That's Yo-Yo, the dog.
OK, come on in.
CHATTER AND LAUGHTER
Home is this for me.
Every birthday of mine since I was first,
my first birthday, was celebrated here or in this house.
And for us to keep that cultural identity alive
is probably one of the most defining aspects
of what it means to be a Galician.
During the history of time,
many different civilisations have tried
to take away that identity...
like Roman Empire.
..they will lose their memories.
Their... They couldn't remember anything.
That's the legend behind the piece I wrote for my mother,
who maybe, like, four years ago started to... to...
..lose her memory.
We want to protect what we have...
..our culture, our music.
And we want our children to keep the language alive.
And in order to be alive, you have to let it grow.
Lots of people, when they think of the Middle East,
they think of divisions, like Sunni, Shia,
Christian, Armenian, Kurds, Turks.
I don't think of the Middle East this way.
You know, I think it's an ancient place
where all the cultures happen to exist at some point.
-How much are these?
That's OK, that's OK. I'm just going to play this, yeah?
When we were in Juilliard,
Kinan and I, Kinan was graduating...
He made this very moving, beautiful piece.
And I told Kinan, I said, "I think I can contribute
"something in this piece."
We think very similarly,
even though he's Muslim Arab and I'm Armenian Christian.
It's... it's not necessary. We grew up without even knowing
who's Christian, who's Muslim in Syria.
It was not a necessary thing.
So this place was... used to be a church,
and then it turned out to be a mosque.
And then here it is, now it's a museum.
No, "This is so beautiful, I don't want to cover it."
That's the power of art,
one crosses any... limitation.
Apparently I thought my father worked at the airport
when I was a child, because that's where he was always going,
and so it was a bit of a massive revelation
that he was not, in fact... employed by Logan Airport.
But he knows what's important,
and I think he sees his obligation,
particularly when he goes to smaller towns,
as beginning the moment he lands
and lasting the entire time he's on the ground.
He's there to spread his sense of the world
in every conversation and interaction that takes place.
Good evening. I'm Yo-Yo Ma,
and this is my brother, Kayhan Kalhor.
Now, we were twins,
but we were separated at birth.
But we found out from DNA analysis...
..that even our life choices...
-..are the same.
Everybody is afraid of going somewhere they haven't gone before.
But you build enough trust within a group,
and sometimes you can turn fear into joy.
A lot of us in our own careers
have developed in different directions.
We have our own bands,
or we have our own work here and there,
but this is the one place where you can come together...
and play music that you... that you don't get to play otherwise.
That tells people like me,
it's OK to be doing what I'm doing.
SHE CALLS OUT
Music is their whole life,
and they told me they're already 11th generation.
So I asked them, "What about 12th generation?
"Is there any 12th, 13th?"
They look at me. There's no answer.
So that... to me, really emotional.
I don't know who writes the scripts
for different revolutions, but they all look the same...
..and they affect people's life in the same way.
Cultural Revolution is
the darkest history time period of China.
And for artist, there is no creation.
The party tell you what to do.
I question the role of art.
I question my role, like, "What am I doing?"
What is my role in comparison to somebody who's on the ground,
peacefully demonstrating, at the risk of being shot, you know?
If you ask me, "Do you want to go home?" Of course, I want to go home,
but in what circumstances would I go?
We humans are...
We have a tendency to control everything.
The Earth, animals, you know,
even the humans around us.
Later on, when the Iran-Iraq war started,
it was a very, very difficult period.
I lost two of my friends.
I lost my best friend.
And later on... a missile hit our house.
I lost all of my family,
my parents and my brother.
I mean, you see how the world is reacting to Syria.
Just three days ago, people die of cold.
I mean, as simple as that.
I mean, the fact that they tried to cut the aid for...
for the refugees, because it's too expensive.
You know, it's just people are not... are not bothered.
We are not our political identities.
Nobody remembers who was the king when Beethoven lived.
But culture stays,
language stays as a part of culture,
music stays as part of culture.
The arts is more about opening up yourself to possibility.
Possibility links to hope.
We all need hope.
-So glad to see you.
-Nice to see you.
When you play,
I'm sure you have a lot of different feelings.
And as you played as a child,
did you ever play happy things or sad things
or angry things, just cos you wanted to?
Oh, sure. One of my favourite was "The Swan," which is...
And you can imagine the swan... right?
MUSIC: The Swan by Camille Saint-Saens
You look at anybody's life, you could find tragedy.
Nobody escapes either the great things or horrible things.
That's the space between life and death.
How do you deal with the fears and doubts?
Do you dare go there?
Can you put all of yourself behind something
and be absolutely authentic in doing it to the best of your ability?
All right, then.
This is the first time that I tried to smuggle flutes into somewhere.
It feels like smuggling flutes, actually...
but it's smuggling for a good cause.
Of course it's emotional, yeah. It's just simply emotional.
I'm going to teach...
Syrian children who have been... They left their homes by force.
I was like them when I was kids.
Look, I didn't have...
a hope that I'm going to be in New York doing my art.
And definitely, one or two of those kids, they're going to make it.
So if we can inspire them and can help them to do this,
they're going to just continue this... this circle.
It's one of those moments again in your life, you know?
Just you realise that...
Considering what I'm doing for the culture
and for the country, you know, I shouldn't be treated that way.
This is what I don't deserve.
You know, I miss my wife.
It doesn't really matter where the base is...
as long as we try to see each other, you know,
as-as... as much as we can.
THEY SPEAK IN OWN LANGUAGE
We have a tendency not to be appreciative
of beautiful things that surround us.
But if you realise what you have in this life
and how precious is the breaths that you take,
the water that you drink, the music in your life...
and your loved ones around you,
it's just enormous wealth and happiness
that doesn't have...
to have anything else to complete it.
It's just complete by itself.
What's the purpose?
Everything I've learned about performing,
about what happens between the notes...
that's about making sure that culture matters.
I don't think Yo-Yo sees himself as a cellist.
I think he sees himself
as someone who wants to change the world,
and he happens to have a cello with him half the time.
And he wants us to be collaborators with scientists
and be collaborators with historians and educators.
HE SINGS, THEY REPLY
I would love it to be contagious.
It's nice just to see that it's a new way of thinking,
also about music, about what people can do together.
it actually shapes your decisions all the time,
and you can take that
as a good challenge or a bad one.
Being part of this experiment did make me understand
what it means to keep your identity alive.
I have dreams about having some sort of role in...
in the arts in Galicia in the future.
And for that, I started the festival, Galician Connection.
This is a festival where I put together international artists
with Galician traditional artists.
When you learn something from another culture,
you will grow more if you're giving back to your own culture.
Just imagine, if we don't have Silk Road musicians moving around,
Chinese music scene or Western music scene are different.
To me, the world is round.
There's no east or west. It's just a globe.
As a four-year-old,
what I wanted to do in life was to understand.
As TS Eliot said,
"We shall never cease from exploration
"and the end of all of our exploring
"will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time."
I don't think that the Silk Road Project was his trying to go home.
I think it was his trying to go away, away from music,
away from a single repertoire.
And I think through that process, he found himself at home again.
Documentary telling the extraordinary story of the international musical collective created by legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. This uplifting film follows this group of diverse instrumentalists, vocalists, composers, arrangers, visual artists and storytellers as they explore the power of music to preserve tradition, shape cultural evolution and inspire hope.
Named for the ancient trade route linking Asia, Africa and Europe, the Silk Road Ensemble is an international collective drawn from an ever-changing line-up of more than 50 performers. Blending performance footage, personal interviews and archival film, the film focuses on the journeys of a small group of Silk Road Ensemble mainstays to create a vivid portrait of a bold musical experiment and a global search for the ties that bind.