Teachers from around Montana received a joyous lesson in the power of music Wednesday at Montana State University Billings.
First they watched “The Music of Strangers,” a 2015 documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, an international-music project founded 16 years ago by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Then they had the chance to listen to and speak with two dynamic members of the ensemble—a bagpiper from Spain and a bamboo-flute player from Japan.
The musicians had spent all day Monday and Tuesday working with seventh- and eighth-graders at Lame Deer Junior High School, marking their sixth annual collaboration with the school on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
This year, said Susan Wolfe, who teaches visual arts at Lame Deer Junior High, the Silk Road Ensemble suggested the movie screening as a way of helping teachers use the film as part of their curriculum. Wolfe had helped write the grant request to Turnaround Arts, a national program that brought the Silk Road Ensemble to Lame Deer as part of its mission of using the arts to improve high-poverty, low-performing schools.
The screening and the discussion with the two artists were sponsored by Lame Deer Schools, the state Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Arts Council and Silkroad, the parent organization of the Silk Road Ensemble.
“It’s been screened all over the world, but we wanted educators to see it,” Wolfe said.
She said before the program that she was looking forward to it because “I just deeply believe in the importance of the arts.” Asked if she’d like to have musicians from the Silk Road Ensemble come to her school, she said, “Oh, my god! I’d die.”
The event began when Cristina Pato, the bagpiper, marched into Petro Hall Theater playing a tune that sounded a Gypsy dirge, with notes fluttering like the wings of birds. She then introduced herself, saying she was from Galicia in northwestern Spain, where her people have a distinct language and culture. Pato said it is a struggle to keep languages alive in the face of globalization, noting that the Northern Cheyenne are under similar pressures.
Then, because the DVD couldn’t be made to work in the theater, the teachers all marched over to a conference room off the dining hall on the other end of Petro Hall.
The movie traced how Yo-Yo Ma brought together performers from diverse musical traditions to create original works that incorporated sounds and influences from all participating cultures.
In a curriculum guide passed out to the teachers, Yo-Yo Ma said he and his musical collaborators have “discovered that curiosity, imagination, and wonder are keys to understanding, allowing us to embrace our differences and celebrate the joy we find in one another.”
There is plenty of joy and hope in the movie, but a good deal of sadness as well, particularly when it focuses on Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist, and Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian who plays a kamancheh, a bowed string instrument similar to the violin.
Both men have suffered greatly because of war and revolution, and footage of fighting in Syria, though years old, carried extra poignancy in light of current events. But even Azmeh managed to strike notes of hopefulness as he spoke of the enduring nature of the arts, compared with politics.
“Nobody remembers who was the king when Beethoven lived,” he said in the movie.
Kojiro Umezaki, the Japanese flutist who played with Pato for the teachers, made an unexpected revelation. The movie often spoke of home, he said, and for one year of his life, Billings—and the very campus he was on—was home.
Though he grew up in Tokyo, he said, his mother spent one year studying at what used to be Eastern Montana College in the 1980s. He attended West High School in 10th grade and lived that year in a dormitory on campus, he said.
Umezaki said his bamboo flute, a shakuhachi, is made for introspective, meditative music, in which the act of breathing, and listening to the spaces between the notes, is as important as the music. But look what happens when it mixes with music designed for celebration and community, he said—at which point he was joined by Pato on the bagpipes.
They both soloed for a bit at first, then came together in a raucous, rollicking tune that had both of them dancing and dodging, almost as if they were engaged in a musical duel.
During the question-and-answer session, someone asked how the musicians were interacting with the students after going to Lame Deer for six years running.
Wolfe answered that question herself, saying the building up of trust and familiarity has had a remarkable effect on her students, who used to run and hide when the strange musicians showed up at their school. On Monday, she said, those same students ran to the front doors to greet them.
“We’re just so extremely fortunate and so grateful,” she said.