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Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble aims to prove that music is a universal language

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The world-renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, is the subject of a new documentary about his Silk Road project. But the proudest moment of his long career might surprise you.

It’s impossible to think of Yo-Yo Ma and not imagine him positioned behind his cello, swaying to its dulcet tones.

After all, Ma first picked up the instrument at age 4, so Ma and the cello have been together for 56 years.

But Ma doesn’t just play classical music. He’s fond of bluegrass, folk music, Argentine tangos and Brazilian sambas, for starters. In the new documentary, “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” you see him travel the world playing with musicians from a wide variety of cultures. The cross-cultural musical project began 16 years ago and continues to this day.

In the movie you learn that Yo-Yo Ma has spent much of his adulthood traveling the world playing music. Ma’s son actually thought his dad was a pilot because he spent so much time at the airport. The film, which was released on June 10, was made by Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning documentarian of “20 Feet from Stardom.” 

Ma joined The Frame to talk about the origin of the Silk Road Ensemble, the importance of exposing kids to the arts and how The Silk Road Ensemble is akin to a sort of cultural diplomacy.

Interview Highlights:

How did the Silk Road Ensemble get started and what was the initial thought behind it?

I have a friend who just opened up a MIT/Singapore alliance and they said that the people in that part of the world were at least as smart as anybody at MIT in Cambridge, MA and I thought, that must apply also to musicians. So we went on a fact-finding/talent-finding mission with a good amount of help from an ethnomusicologist, Theodore Levin, and gathered from his extensive experience musicians and composers to write music and then brought them to Tanglewood in 2000, which is the summer festival home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We brought about sixteen musicians together and that was the beginning of the Silk Road Ensemble.

One of the purposes of this project is to awaken curiosity. Do you think that's something that the world needs more of?

What's very strange is that we live in a world of so much packaged information with quick sound bites, texts, and I love all of this. But, what happens is that while we do faster thinking, we also make faster judgements. This is what happens when I travel. Here in the United States, we make very quick judgements about people from other countries, but when I go to other countries, I experience their quick judgements about what they say about the United States. I think that just thinking for a split second longer before you make that judgement actually can lead you to magnificent worlds that are yet unexplored in your own mind. I would say that curiosity is step one to creativity. Step two would be imagination and empathy. Then, developing trust from which you can have a safety ground from which to innovate and to be creative. I think these steps are absolutely essential to the survival and continued prosperity of our nation so we can function with great pride and integrity. 

That's the philosophical side behind it, but when you bring together a group of musicians who play different instruments and have different ways of orchestrating music, how do you make sure that you have a process that allows the individual artist to contribute, but you don't end up with a horse by committee or a camel?

You have to create a level of safety that nobody is going to be ridiculed, and that no stronger personality is bullying somebody else so that you have a partnership and overarching ideas. For us, it's generosity and virtuosity. Respect for somebody else's virtuosity means that's their strength. That means that everybody has weaknesses and you don't fault them for weaknesses. We all work on each other's weaknesses without criticism. We just recognize that and the generosity part is that, because you respect somebody, you really want to learn what they have to say and you give them time to lead, to teach you something. And other times you may have something to share that may be worthwhile to the rest of the group. 

Would you say the Silk Road project is akin to a sort of cultural diplomacy?

We are strangers to one another until we become part of one community. I think the strength of our nation has always been our immigrant community. I'm proud and grateful, as an immigrant, to have come here to this country because I was given chances I think...only this country gives. I'm a grateful immigrant and I think that our strength comes from the myriad numbers of immigrants that have each contributed to the creativity and -- if you want to talk economically -- to the wealth and prosperity of this country. So our project is like a little microcosm of the United States. And I think, probably this project could only have happened in the United States because we have those values. 

You've appeared on kids' shows like Sesame Street. Can you talk about what it means to you to be invited as a guest on these shows?

When people ask me, "what are you proud of to have done?" I say to people, one of the proudest things I've ever ever done is to appear on Sesame Street, on Mr. Rogers and on Arthur. It's because when I appear on those shows, I'm going into the child's home. I'm going into their territory, it's their show. So I'm a guest there and if they accept me as their guest, I'm theirs forever. To understand the world of the child. We were talking about culture and immigrants and whatever, no, a child lives in his or her own world view, that is expanding all the time. What  we put into the child's mind, to me, if they accept you it's permanent. This was over 30 years ago that I did those shows and today I see 30-year-olds come to me and say you know I play this instrument because I saw you on Mr. Rogers or I saw you on Sesame Street or I saw you on Arthur. I loved it. That's that unconditional giving that is not about a transactional thing. I think its an incredibly powerful way to communicate with younger audiences. 

Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble perform Aug. 21 at the Hollywood Bowl.

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