(Artspeak) Yo-Yo Ma and the road to human kindness through the art of music

After you’ve been greeted by Yo-Yo Ma with a hug instead of a handshake, you gain some appreciation for how he has, as the Artistic Director, managed to convince an ever-changing group of almost 60 artists (performers and composers) from different cultures and countries, who speak multiple languages, to become collaborators in the visionary Silk Road Project, Inc., founded in 1998.

Yo-Yo Ma exudes gentleness and warmth. He looks at you directly and smiles, and on stage he is not the center piece, but part of the ensemble—just one of the crew, though his genius and vision are evident everywhere. On March 16, 2009, an audience at the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall experienced what Yo-Yo Ma calls “passion driven education” when 16 of this eclectic large Silk Road Project Ensemble of musicians took to the stage.

There were more instruments than musicians because they changed and swapped depending upon what the repertoire required. And what an amazing repertoire it was: an opening improvisation (“Wandering Winds”) on “…the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and the bawu ( a Chinese free-reed wood instrument);” a funky percussion-centered piece (“Saidi Swing”) that included the tabla, twin drums (similar to bongos) that has origins in India, Pakinstan, and Afghanistan; the frame drum, which is “…the oldest and most widely used drum in the world;” “the riq, an Egyptian tambourine;” the “darbuka, a goblet-shaped drum used throughout the Middle East,” and the cajón, thought to have been developed by African slaves along the coast of Peru, but used by African-descended people in Cuba and Brazil. In this one song, the Silk World ensemble has done more to convey the possibilities of global harmony through music than the United Nations or the United State’s diplomatic core has been able to achieve.

The concert included compositions from composers whose origins are in Hong Kong and Los Angeles; Uzbekistan, which is north of Afghanistan; Persia; China; and Japan. So listening to the Silk Road Ensemble is to go on a musical cultural geography tour, and be introduced to unique sounds, words, rhythms, and instruments. The Ensemble’s ability to blend all of this together into harmonic accord is a testimony to the talents of those playing, but more importantly it speaks to the powerful vision and leadership of Yo-Yo Ma.

According to Laura Fried, CEO and Executive Director of the Silk Road Project, Yo-Yo Ma has often observed that if he had not become a musician, he would have become an anthropologist. And the core principles of anthropology are evident in his work: the valuing of the distinctiveness of cultures; understanding what we share as humans, as well as our differences; a holistic approach to understanding cultures—so that music is not just sounds and rhythms, but also encompasses the storytelling traditions that are used to convey a culture’s values and principles. If anthropology is indeed “the study of humanity,” then Yo-Yo Ma is an anthropologist par excellence, who studies humanity through music. On his website, he writes, “I have always been more interested in what joins people together than what separates them.”

Born in China, but raised in Paris, Yo-Yo Ma was a musical prodigy who began studying the cello when he was four. Shortly afterwards his family migrated to New York, where Yo-Yo Ma attended the famous Julliard School for Music. According to his biography, he focused on acquiring a “traditional liberal arts education to build on his conservatory training and graduated from Harvard University in 1976.” His decision to seek breadth (liberal arts) to compliment his specialization (conservatory), are the same elements that characterize the best anthropologists.

The Silk Road Project is more than simply building a global community of musicians; the project’s core mission is to connect “the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe.” Motivated by their concern for world issues, SRP has an action music and educational agenda to “promote innovation and learning through the arts.” Says Yo-Yo Ma, Every time I open a newspaper, I am reminded that we live in a world where we can no longer afford not to know our neighbors.”

A few neighbors across the United States were fortunate to have the opportunity to listen, watch, and learn from the Silk Road Ensemble. Although the group normally performs only two concerts a year—one in Europe and one in the United States, in 2009, they embarked on a six-city tour to celebrate “ten years of connecting the world’s neighborhoods.” Minneapolis was blessed to be one of the host cities, which also included Providence, RI; Boston, MA; North Bethesda, MD; Ann Arbor, MI; and Toronto, Ontairo.

When not performing, the Silk Road Ensemble practices Yo-Yo Ma’s concept of passion driven education in other venues by sharing their knowledge and expertise, and learning in turn from their vast audiences of teachers, musicians from all over the world, colleges and universities, and school children through cross-cultural exchanges, residences, workshops and partnerships that result in new educational materials and programs.

One challenge of being a genius and visionary is that you are always thinking ahead. And so, the Silk Road Project, named after the “historical Silk Road trading route” in China that spanned 7,000 miles and linked it to Central Asia, Northern India, and the Parthian and Roman Empires, has taken on another challenge—academic success for students in the sixth and seventh grades.

In 2009, with the support of the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation of New York, and in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, the Silk Road Project has embarked on perhaps one of its most ambitious efforts to date—a partnership with the New York Campaign for Middle School Success. During phase one of this project, 150 educators will have been trained in the Along the Silk Road curriculum, and used it to teach their students about “geography, culture, belief systems, arts, languages and commerce” as a way to motivate and improve academic performance in middle school. Throughout the year, middle school students will be introduced not only to the history of the ancient Silk Road, but will learn about the history of Indigo as well, charting a path of learning that takes them “through history, linking Egyptian mummies, pirates, Mahatma Gandhi and modern-day blue jeans.” Throughout this educational journey, they will learn about the interconnectedness of people’s lives and history throughout the world, absorbing one of the core principles upon which the Silk Road Project was founded: “…the hope that we may better address our differences if we appreciate our commonalities,” according to CEO and Executive Director Laura Freid.

For their efforts in learning through this unique curriculum, participating students and their families, most of who hail from northern Manhattan and the southern Bronx, home to some of New York’s most economically challenged neighborhoods, will have the opportunity to hear Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble play in June 2009, at the conclusion of phase one.

Similar to the vision of the historical Silk Road trade route, Yo-Yo Ma is building his own road, through the development of his Silk Road Project that encompasses the development of collaborative music and educational resources. It is a road of human kindness, as well as a cultural legacy that affirms Yo-Yo Ma’s and the Silk Road Ensemble’s desire to achieve greater understanding across differences and cultivate appreciation among all who will listen for the humanity we collectively share.

For more on Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project:

For more on the Silk Road trading route:

For more on Indigo:

For more on the cajón:

Irma McClaurin is an anthropologist/writer, and also Associate Vice President for System Academic Administration, as well as Executive Director of the Urban Research and Outreach Center at the University of Minneapolis. Her latest essay, “Walking in Zora’s Shoes or ‘Seek[ing] Out de Inside Meanin’ of Words’: The Intersections of Anthropology, Ethnography, Identity, and Writing,” was just published in Anthropology Off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing (Wiley 2009). The views expressed are entirely her own. ©2009 McClaurin Solutions

April 2, 2009
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