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World Music Features

Yo-Yo Ma

By Tad Hendrickson
Published August 18, 2008

Yo-Yo Ma is a restless intellect whose mosaic-like career has encompassed not just classical music, but bluegrass, tango, bossa nova and, most notably, a variety of Asian-based styles with his Silk Road Project. Whichever thread he weaves with, Ma is a man on a mission.

In talking with the Harvard and Juilliard graduate, words like “imagination,” “communication,” “connection,” “value,” and “memorability” come up as guiding principles in his approach to music. For Ma, now 52, music isn’t simply about songs and composers, instruments and technique, or genre and style. Instead, he regards music as a window into understanding cultures, finding universal truths, and gaining a profound knowledge of self, and thus the outside world. In short: music is a tool for making sense of life.


“When I play the cello, I try sometimes not to think, ‘This is a cello,’” he asserts, more than a little enigmatically. “There’s a Hindu saying or thought that says ‘Just before you play, you blow out a breath, and it goes to the edge of the universe, and then when you breathe it in, it comes from the edge of the universe back into you.’ If that’s the image that you have, it doesn’t matter what instrument you’re playing. That sound will have the sense of that image.”


Like a Zen Buddhist sage from one of Lao Tzu’s classic poems, Ma takes in a mighty breath and creates great art as he explores music, culture and, ultimately, human nature. And yet for all his heady thoughts about deciphering the secrets of life, Yo-Yo Ma emits a certain playful positivity and sense of earnestness, giving him a likability factor that’s as big as his talent. This side of him means he has gained entry into such unlikely milieus as People Magazine (he was voted Sexiest Classical Musician in 2001). But more than adding to his cachet as a cultural icon, Ma’s easygoing openness makes him the perfect collaborator for a wide range of talented artists (among them Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Kayhan Kalhor, Ton Koopman, Alison Krauss, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Mark Morris, Mark O’Connor, Kathryn Stott, Wu Man, Wu Tong, and David Zinman—and that’s just the short list).


The fact is, this gifted prodigy, who gave his first concert performance at age four (and performed for President Kennedy soon thereafter), is a remarkably balanced and grounded individual. There is a deferential humor that he uses to connect with others and to illustrate some of his weighty ideas. Take, for example, his story about learning how to play bluegrass music:


“I remember working with Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor,” Ma