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Yo-Yo Ma talks new documentary, ‘The Music of Strangers’

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Ilya S. Savenok

Call it a gift — or an affliction — but part of why Yo-Yo Ma is so in demand is that he’s so darn likable. The megastar cellist who once made headlines when he forgot his cello in a cab — see, he’s human just like us (and, yes, it was returned) — is perhaps the world’s most well-known classical musician.

But these days he’s not content to knock out one concerto after the next. In 2000, he formed the Silk Road Ensemble, a group of international musicians whose concerts, outsize personalities and outreach to struggling populations are chronicled in a new documentary, “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” which opens on Long Island on June 24. Moving, maddening and inspirational, the film follows Ma and other Ensemble members, chronicling their lives, motivation and music made on a variety of odd-shaped instruments. (The group’s latest album, “Sing Me Home,” is out on Amazon and iTunes.)

Born in Paris to Chinese musicians, Ma was a child prodigy, playing cello for President John F. Kennedy at age 7, attending Juilliard at 9. Now 60, he is married with two grown children.

How are you?

Good. So tell me . . . [He pauses.] “What’s your beat?”

My . . .? Ohhh . . . very clever, sir. You actually read my bio.

[He unleashes a big laugh.] You’re thinking, “Youuu rat.”

When your PR team asked for my bio, they said you like to know who you’ll be talking to. That’s smart. And unusual. So, yes, you saw in my bio how I hate being asked that question: “What’s your beat?” I don’t have one, I like writing about many subjects, but people expect you to stick to one thing. I guess you know that — you got some flak when you started this group, venturing into territory where others thought you didn’t belong.

Just do the off beats. Like you’re really swinging. Oom-CHUCK, oom-CHA-chahh, oom-CHUCK. Unfortunately, we don’t have much time — I don’t know that we can discuss all the details of my work, but if we just do the OFF-beats . . .

Then we’ll cover a lot of ground. OK, let’s jump right in — early in the film, on first forming this ensemble, you said, “I was scared to death.” I bet people assume not much fazes you, performance-wise. Is that not true?

Actually . . . I think every time we go to the edge of something, it gets scary. I’m sure you write a lot. But say you’re writing a novel, and you think, “Wait, that’s longer than what I usually write.” It’s still words, but it’d be scary. Same with music, and dealing with different cultures — suddenly, I had no idea how things would turn out. You have to find a way to conquer that fear that says, “Gee, this whole thing may crash and burn.”

How does Silk Road find music to perform?

In every possible way music is made. We just made a CD called “Sing Me Home,” and each member took the lead on a track with a piece of music they loved deeply. Johnny Gandelsman [a Silk Road Ensemble violinist from Moscow and the album’s producer] took the lead on “Heart and Soul.” It’s a beautiful song, but it’s important to Johnny because it gives him this sense of “home” — when he arrived in Israel from Moscow, it was the first song he heard, so it’s seared in his memory. We do another wonderful song called “Ichichila,” with Balla Kouyate [a guest artist from Mali], who plays an instrument called a balafon. It’s been in his family for 400 years — they invented it, so he’s like a direct descendant of that instrument. So we’re all leaders all followers, at different times. That’s what makes this group great.

So you’re all . . . as curious as you are musical?

Absolutely. That’s the fundamental thing binding us together. Each person is an incredible virtuoso in their own area, and also incredibly interested in the rest of the world. I’ve gotten to know many swaths of music I wouldn’t have been able to learn by myself because of these friends. We’re like family to each other. A creative family.

And a daring one. I was touched by the scenes in the film where we see your musicians teaching music classes to kids in troubled areas.

Right now there are two members out in Jordan at a refugee camp, committed to putting a human face on the refugee situation there.

It’s incredible — there are 80,000 refugees living at that camp. That’s . . . insane.

We hope what we do is socially impactful and meaningful. We’re doing music, and when things are not in great shape, we do what we do with even more passion than before.

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