Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Ponders Links Between Mummies, Gandhi, Jeans

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble
Bloomberg News

March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Yo-Yo Ma, looking relaxed in his black corduroy slacks and black sweater, put down his 18th- century Venetian cello and posed a riddle to his audience: "What connects mummies to pirates and Mahatma Gandhi and blue jeans?"

I'd come to see the 53-year-old musician in action, on a recent evening in Manhattan at Columbia Teachers College. 

There was no symphony orchestra to accompany him. He shared the stage with New York City schools chancellor Joel I. Klein, a storyteller and a British scholar. Ma performed for about three minutes of the 90-minute program -- "Sarabande" from a Bach cello suite.

The star cellist is an ardent champion of what he likes to call "passion-driven" education -- musical and otherwise.

For the most part, Ma's 600-strong audience came from the trenches of the New York City public schools. The session kicked off a novel, two-year collaboration between the city's Department of Education and the Silk Road Project, the nonprofit musical and educational organization that Ma founded 10 years ago to bridge East and West.

Working closely with educators, the Silk Road Project plans to craft an interdisciplinary curriculum based on the study of the eponymous ancient East-West trade route where ideas, cultures and goods freely mingled. The American Museum of Natural History and the Manhattan School of Music will also participate in the program.

"I've been playing this piece since I was 5 or 6 years old," Ma said about "Sarabande." "And every year of playing it, I learn something new."

Banned in Spain

It originated in North Africa hundreds of years ago as a woman's dance, he said, made its way to Spain, where it was banned for being too lascivious, and hopped over to France, where it was adapted as a courtly dance. Johann Sebastian Bach took it from there in the 1720s -- incorporating it into a suite of dances.

"So who owns this piece?" Ma said. "The world."

The Silk Road program will target sixth graders in Manhattan because it's a pivotal year.

"One of the things I remember about sixth grade --and there's not a lot I want to remember -- is that it's very confusing," Ma said. "You're thinking about who you are, how you fit in the world. It's tough on the parents, it's tough on the kids."

Silk Road Curriculum

Teacher's College held a workshop earlier that same day for 150 sixth-grade teachers, who may start introducing aspects of the Silk Road curriculum into their classrooms this spring.

As for Ma's riddle: The answer is indigo, the precious plant-derived dye that's been in use for some 4,000 years. The Silk Road Project hopes to use the study of indigo to explore everything from history and chemistry to economics, music and art.

Indigo dye is so chemically stable that it has endured for thousands of years in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, explained British indigo historian Jenny Balfour-Paul.

Caribbean pirates raided treasure-laden galleons in the 17th century, carrying indigo among their precious cargoes. In the early 1900s in India, Gandhi's support of oppressed indigo workers helped launch the Indian independence movement. Indigo dye also contributed to the invention of Levi Strauss & Co.'s blue jeans. American slaves farmed and processed indigo, which turned their hands blue -- and possibly gave rise to the music we now call the blues.

Early Stages

I caught up with Ma after the freewheeling session.

"This is the beginning of the work," Ma said. "So, I'm expectant, a little nervous, excited and realizing there's a long road ahead. But it's a worthwhile road to travel."

The indigo curriculum is only in its early planning stages for the 2009-10 school year. It will, of course, include plenty of music.

"We're trying to look at Duke Ellington's ‘Mood Indigo' as a core piece," Ma said. "It was Wynton Marsalis's favorite piece. He's taught it to me and now I love it, too."

In June, Ma's Silk Road Ensemble will finish up its 10th anniversary tour with two concerts at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall and a free outdoor concert in Damrosch Park.

"Hopefully, a lot of the people we saw tonight might want to come and continue this conversation," Ma said.

For more information: http://www.silkroadproject.org/.