A Musician of Many Cultures

Yo-Yo Ma - Cambridge, Massachusetts
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, March 10, 2008
Yo-Yo Ma

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was born in France to Chinese parents, and he has lived in the U.S. since he was seven. Instead of trying to choose among these cultural roots, Ma decided to embrace them all. He believes doing so has enriched his life and music.

Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe in the infinite variety of human expression.

I grew up in three cultures: I was born in Paris, my parents were from China, and I was brought up mostly in America. When I was young, this was very confusing: Everyone said that their culture was best, but I knew they couldn’t all be right. I felt that there was an expectation that I would choose to be Chinese or French or American. For many years I bounced among the three, trying on each but never being wholly comfortable. I hoped I wouldn’t have to choose, but I didn’t know what that meant and how exactly to “not choose.”

However, the process of trying on each culture taught me something. As I struggled to belong, I came to understand what made each one unique. At that point, I realized that I didn’t need to choose one culture to the exclusion of another, but instead I could choose from all three. The values I selected would become part of who I was, but no one culture needed to win. I could honor the cultural depth and longevity of my Chinese heritage, while feeling just as passionate about the deep artistic traditions of the French and the American commitment to opportunity and the future.

So, rather than settling on any one of the cultures in which I grew up, I now choose to explore many more cultures and find elements to love in each. Every day I make an effort to go toward what I don’t understand. This wandering leads to the accidental learning that continually shapes my life.

As I work in music today, I try to implement this idea — that the music I play, like me, doesn’t belong to only one culture. In recent years, I have explored many musical traditions. Along the way, I have met musicians who share a belief in the creative power that exists at the intersection of cultures. These musicians have generously become my guides to their traditions. Thanks to them and their music I have found new meaning in my own music making.

It is extraordinary the way people, music, and cultures develop. The paths and experiences that guide them are unpredictable. Shaped by our families, neighborhoods, cultures, and countries, each of us ultimately goes through this process of incorporating what we learn with who we are and who we seek to become. As we struggle to find our individual voices, I believe we must look beyond the voice we’ve been assigned and find our place among the tones and timbre of human expression.

Yo-Yo Ma created the Silk Road Project in 1998 to explore the cultural traditions of the countries along the ancient trade route through Asia. A cello player since age four, Ma has won 15 Grammy Awards. He lives with his family in Cambridge, Mass.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo courtesy of Sony Music.