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It took most of his life, but Yo-Yo Ma finally discovered his passion. “My passion is people,” says the 56-year-old cellist who is arguably the best-known face in classical music. A surprising punch line to what might have been a mundane answer. But Ma is anything but mundane. He’s genuine and easy to talk to, even for such an intelligent man whose creative genius puts him in the category of classical legend.
“I never thought of myself as just a classical musician,” Ma says, explaining his natural curiosity for psychology, anthropology and the study of other cultures. “I’m first a human being. Then a musician. Late on my list is being a cellist.”
The cellist has a wide range of recognition—from classical music lovers to 6-year-old Sesame Street watchers. His 1986 appearance on Sesame Street, in which he gives Elmo a cello lesson, helped cement his status in pop culture, although Ma’s been a longtime fixture in classical music.
The Parisian-born child of two Chinese musicians, he was a child prodigy who took up the cello when he was 4 and played for President John F. Kennedy when Ma was only 7. After studying at the Juilliard School of Music (at age 9), the Professional Children's School and graduating from Harvard University, he recorded his first album for Sony Classical in 1983. His discography includes more than 75 albums and 15 Grammy Award winners, including the critically acclaimed Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology (Sony Classical, 2001) and Songs of Joy & Peace (Sony Classical, 2008). The collaborative album teams him with folk singer James Taylor, country star Alison Krauss, jazz siren Diana Krall and others to create an eclectic mix of jazz, folk, secular and traditionally seasonal holiday songs.
The most unlikely source of adulation comes from an episode of Seinfeld from the early 1990s, in which a head injury prompts Kramer to spontaneously exclaim, “Yo Yo Ma!” Ma enjoyed the joke, but it made a bigger impression on his children, Nicholas and Emily, then in their preteens. “My kids have always thought of me as ‘Dad the dork,’ ” he says. “But when Jerry Seinfeld mentions your name in an episode, maybe Dad is a little cool after all.”
Ma’s venture into new territory is an important theme in his life, as he’s stepped out of his comfort zone of classical and collaborated with popular musicians on several projects, including movie soundtracks and pop recordings. His first foray into unfamiliar genres, such as American Appalachian music in 2000, whet Ma’s appetite for melodic exploration.
“People would ask me, ‘Why don’t you just stay a classical musician? Why get involved in Argentinean music, go to Africa to study the bushmen or create these different ensembles of musicians from all over the world?'" Ma says. "I can't just be a classical musician. I'm too interested in our world not to explore other kinds of music." He’s recorded albums of bluegrass, tango, bossa nova and a variety of Asian-based musical styles with his Silk Road Ensemble comprised of international musicians.
“The thing I want to do most is understand,” he says. “When I travel to a city, I wonder ‘how did that city form?’ When I go into a country, I ask ‘how did that country develop?’ I hear music and wonder what the composer was trying to say. I look at people and wonder what struggles they’ve had. I’m like that 5-year-old child who’s always asking, ‘Why?’ ”
‘We Didn’t Think You Had the Wherewithal’
It’s this natural curiosity that fills Ma’s passport of international musical projects. But not every genre of music he attempted was successful at first.
“I remember my first foray into blue grass music,” Ma says. “Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor [collaborators on the Appalachian album] were showing me how to play this music. I thought the music I was making sounded good. But they didn’t think so. They looked at me, sort of quiet, because they didn’t have the heart to tell me. I sounded awful.
“But that was OK,” he says laughing. “You learn from it. On this album, one of the collaborators, the Assad brothers [Brazilian guitarists], encouraged me to explore traditional Brazilian music— the kind that is played at Carnival. We labored and once I recorded it, they came to me and said, ‘When we gave you this piece, we didn’t think you could do it. We didn’t think you had the wherewithal to pull this off.’”
This criticism was important for Ma, who would sometimes question his own decision to reach beyond classical music. Was he diluting his cello career for movie soundtrack projects and other popular collaborations? “Some musicians may have viewed me as selling out for venturing into popular music,” Ma says, taking the initiative to mention “sell out,” although the question was never asked. “But selling out is when you make an inferior product with inferior materials at a cheaper cost.”
Without a sliver of defensiveness, Ma says, “That’s not what I’m doing with my music. When I collaborate, I explore. I learn from people and enrich my music in ways I never thought I was capable of.” Today, Ma still travels several nights a week performing with classical ensembles throughout the country and donates his time to causes that bring music to young audiences. While touring, he often breaks away to conduct master classes as well as informal sessions for young students—all in an effort to expose children to music at an early age, just as he was. The child prodigy is now 53, but is as curious about life as he was when he first began playing cello at 4.
“I think the thing about passion-driven education, which I so believe in, is that there’s no difference between teaching and learning,” Ma told The Boston Globe on the eve of an appearance with the Boston Youth Symphony. “I’m always learning. And if you’re a passionate student, you’re always teaching, because you’re sharing what you know.”