Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, next stop: San Antonio

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble
La Prensasa

By Angela Covo

More than the world’s greatest virtuoso cellist, Yo-Yo Ma is truly a virtuoso human being.

He is a generous soul on an extraordinary quest, seeking answers to profound questions and making the connections to share with all of us.

In fact, I’m sure he said the most important part of a performance is “sharing something.” But the words that reached my heart came a few minutes later.

“When you don’t share, you’re spending lots of energy keeping it – but when you share, it’s as if you’ve created a muscle, and it builds more capacity,” he said.

In just a few minutes, it was clear that when Ma looks at something, he sees, and he’s mastered the elusive talent of knowing the right questions to ask.

I wondered what one thing spurred him to create The Silk Road Ensemble, a magnificent collaboration between musicians as far flung as China and Galicia, uniting the sounds of different cultures and traditions into glorious joyful song. But this is not a wild tapestry of music that Ma is weaving. The common thread, the piece that joins the musicians today, comes from a somewhat distant past when these cultures did brush against each other on the Silk Road.

The historical link is significant, because it connects us as well to a distant ancient past that lies buried within. The story of the Silk Road is as rich as the commerce that made it grow and connected the east to the west, commingling flavors, colors, and sounds serendipitously that had never been mixed before. And for hundreds of years, not only exchanging goods like silk, but ideas, traditions and culture.

Ma explained from the beginning that ideas in his head often have a “long gestation period.”

But the very important questions often take time to ponder and nurture, and this grand experiment connecting humans, those who play as well as those who listen, through music, deserved all the time in the world.

The Silk Road Project finally came together as a nonprofit organization in 1998, opening our minds and hearts to the echoes of cultural exchange from the past and allowing us to envision new connections.

“Well, I was born in Paris to Chinese parents, and we moved to New York City when I was about four or five,” Ma said, to explain away the quirk of taking his time to consider something.

The thought occurred to me that he was his own virtual melting pot. But he said it much better: “I guess I’m my own spice rack.”

And indeed, Ma recorded more than 70 records in thirty years, and earned at least 16 Grammys in diverse categories, including separate best crossover awards for playing the tango, and bluegrass, and Latin music on an album called Obrigado Brazil.

Ma’s ability to stretch musically not only led him to create The Silk Road Ensemble, but also to play with Santana, James Taylor, and Sting, just to give a small sample.

For Ma, music is a universal language, not just a classification on a chart.

It wasn’t until he played with Bobby McFerrin, however, that he learned what he considers the most important performance lesson of his life. “He is fearless, and his message was ‘be yourself,’” Ma said.

Ma loves the live performances above all.

“Live performances create magical moments,” he said. “They are not replicable, and not only does the experience share the voices, but the people and the moment.”

And Ma has had magical moments – in 1962, just 7 years old, he played for Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower (with his sister Yeou-Cheng Ma). As he became more and more accomplished on the cello, he traveled all over the world, recorded and played with hundreds of artists. He is the U.N. Messenger of Peace, and he received the National Medal of Arts in 2001.

And last month, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest national honor that can be bestowed on a civilian.

“It was a surreal experience,” Ma said. “Barbara Bush was there with her two sons, and taking pictures of everybody.”

Among the other honorees was former President George H.W. Bush, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Mendez and 11 other great thinkers, scientists, leaders.

“It was an incredibly moving moment – and also obviously a great honor," he said. “Like a great tragedy, it spurs you to go on and do more, work harder, with more passion, to do your work with greater focus." 

Ma observed that the honorees were all lovely people, people who were intensely aware of others. 

“Awareness is part of being, and a way to get a sense of who we are,” he added.

This week, we have a great opportunity to become more aware, but the upcoming performance is one night only. Ma explained this presentation offers something very special.

“It’s an invitation to travel around the world, without having to get on the bus – to hear the sounds of a thousand galloping horses, to learn the story of a little girl who waits for her grandmother who never comes, to hear how Christian Arabs would sing at Easter,” he said.

“All the beauty of tradition and culture is the result of a successful invitation,” Ma said.

“It challenges your way of thinking and gives a certain freedom – and suddenly you find others living the same experience – connecting.”

Ma wants San Antonio to know he has real connections here as well.

“I want them to know my father-in-law was born in San Antonio,” he explained. Ma is married to the lovely Jill Hornor and they have two children, Emily, 25 and Nicholas, 28.

But that’s not all. It turns out he is related to Eva Longoria.

“A genealogical study discovered Eva Longoria and I share a relative somewhere in the last one hundred years. Really,” he said.

And while I broke it to him gently that that did not qualify him to be a Mexican, I remembered, thanks to John Phillip Santos and his beautiful book, The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire, that in fact, we are all Mestizos.

And for Yo-Yo Ma, that connection was a joy.