Cellist Yo-Yo Ma

The 16-time Grammy-winning cellist explains what traveling has done for his music and performs a track from his new bluegrass album “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.”

Considered the world’s greatest living cellist, Yo-Yo Ma has a discography of more than 75 albums and numerous awards and honors, including 16 Grammys and, as of this year, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Beyond the classics, he's known for his versatility, ranging from Baroque pieces and tangos to traditional Asian melodies and bluegrass, which is the style of his newest project, "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." His music can also be heard in several feature films.  The Harvard grad founded and is artistic director for the non-profit Silk Road Project.


Yo-Yo Ma: Well, I can tell you, it’s such an honor to be on your show.

Tavis: I just got to say, I was giddy when I saw the list come out of the Kennedy Center Honors this year and I was so like “Yo-Yo, my man!” [Laugh] I was so happy and you’re so young. You got to be one of the younger ones to get this honor.

Ma: Well, I’m trapped in the body of a 96-year-old [laugh].

Tavis: We had in this very chair some weeks ago, Sonny Rollins was here.

Ma: Oh, my gosh, wow. Isn’t that amazing, with Sonny Rollins?

Tavis: We had a conversation with Sonny Rollins. I feel blessed to have two of you in a matter of weeks on the show.

Ma: You have the most interesting people on your show and you do what I think is a citizen’s duty to check out what’s going on in our country. I think, you know, as musicians, we can’t keep a steady job. You, at least, have a steady job. I don’t have a day job, so we’re always traveling.

What you see, we try and actually put into music so it’s a kind of reporting on what’s going on.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. It’s a great way to start our conversation. Since you are so well-traveled, what has traveling done for your music? I have this wonderful boxed set of yours that came out a year or so ago that has like 189,000 CDs in it, everything you’ve ever done, which I love. I can never get enough of Yo-Yo Ma.

But when you travel the world as much as you have and see, to your point, what you have seen, the thing I love about your music is that I can hear the humanity in what you do. But tell me more about how that translates for you in the music.

Ma: I think that the group that we have together is, I think, a typically American group in the sense that we all have different experiences. You and I have had very different experiences in life and yet there’s a commonality.

Somehow I sense there are common values. You know, you care about what’s going on. You care about showing what’s going on. With our group of friends there, it’s the same thing. We come and we say, okay, well, this is what kind of music is it?

Well, it’s part classical, it’s part bluegrass, it’s part blues, it’s part Appalachian music. It’s all of us, so it’s not a mish-mash, but rather we’re trying to take the best of what we think we aspire towards in terms of what we can do as people in music and say let’s make it work together.

I sensed those values in you whenever I see you on the show or when you go on tour and I think it’s reporting on the stories of people, that’s what we see and feel.

Tavis: When I saw a written piece about the fact that you guys were working on this project, there were two questions that came to mind immediately, so I’m glad you’re here so I can ask you these two questions face to face.

In no particular order, the first question was how is Yo-Yo Ma going to explain this to the purists? Because you happen to be in one of those professions where there are a lot of purists who don’t always understand when one of their own goes off the range, as it were. So how you gonna explain this project to the purists?

Ma: You know, what’s so funny is I was talking with some of your wonderful crew members here on staff and I was saying, you know, we’re just a bunch of positive deviants [laugh], and it’s true because what I mean by that is you want – I think part of growth is to go – I was checking this with my fellow band members before [unintelligible]. What can we talk about?

Well, what we care about is constantly getting better. Aoife said, “I want to climb my own mountain at my own pace.” You know, you want to be the architect of your life. So no matter where we come from, the deeper you go into anything, you find that there is no purity.

Purity is a construct and, if you’re gonna grow, you have to constantly open yourself to get to, as you know so well, the edge of your comfort zone, then report back on what the landscape is, what the environment is. Because a group of people decided that we’re gonna do that, the result is “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.”

Tavis: Which the audience will get a chance to hear some of this in just a second and you can judge for yourself what you think of what Yo-Yo Ma has done with his band mates.

The second question that came to mind immediately, Yo-Yo, when I saw this was, again, in your profession, you are supposed to play the note that’s on the page. You play the score.

Now obviously, you play it on the cello better than anybody else in the world, so a note isn’t just a note ’cause Yo-Yo gives that note a treatment that other folk can’t give on the cello, but you are playing to what’s on the written score.

So bluegrass is like the exact opposite. It’s a feeling and you get into it and there is no right or wrong to bluegrass. It’s your own stylings. So how did you fit in with these guys when you’re trained to play the note and they’re doing their thing?

Ma: Well, that’s a very, very good question because Stuart, who plays in the National Bluegrass Band for over 26 years, says, you know, “I never look at a piece of music in my life.” Edgar, the bass player, can both play bluegrass or he plays classical. He’s written Double Bass cello concertos. I’ve played with him. He’s been in the [unintelligible] ensemble.

He plays everything and he’s comfortable in all of these or he’s as uncomfortable in anything [laugh] because he’s going for perfection, he’s going for something in his mind that is absolutely pure and beautiful. There is purity; in his mind, there’s that kind of purity, and we all experience that some of the time, but it’s really never just in a domain.

So we were working until we were taping on a short version of the song that you will hear later on and we were kind of figuring out what to do, what’s gonna sound good. We’re using our ears, our eyes, our minds, to say how can we make this right for the Tavis Smiley Show, for that length, for this audience? So figuring it out.

Yeah, there are certain things that are written down, but actually we’ll change it if it doesn’t seem right because of the environment that we’re in. That’s what so beautiful is that we’re each actually putting ourselves out on the line and figuring it out.

Tavis: Since you used the word uncomfortable, let me pick up on your word of choice and ask then for you to share with me how – you’re smiling already and I ain’t even asked the question yet.

Ma: You make me comfortable [laugh].

Tavis: I’m glad you’re comfortable now. That ain’t my question, though. My question is, how uncomfortable were you really? I mean, you’re the best at what you do and I know on a stage in a classical performance, you are at home. You could do this in your sleep. But were you ever honestly uncomfortable trying to figure all this out?

Ma: You know what’s so great is that I think, 30 years ago, I would have been really uncomfortable, and I’ve lived so long. I’m older than you.

Tavis: Barely [laugh].

Ma: Much older. I’m so old and, you know, I don’t care about making a fool of myself. But if I feel something is wonderful and the chemistry’s right between people and we want to be a band, I don’t mind making a fool of myself.

I was never uncomfortable with this group. Why? Because they’re such fabulous, first of all, human beings and then, second of all, great musicians. Edgar, I’ve known for over 20 years, and Edgar’s known Chris and Stuart for over 20 years, so it’s an immediate friendship.

Your friend is my friend and that’s how it goes. We’re never gonna put each other at risk to make them look bad or whatever, so there’s that sizing up, let’s say, okay, this is what he can do, this is what we can do together, and that how it comes out.

Tavis: You’ve lived long enough, you said, Yo-Yo, to not be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Put another way, you’re not afraid to try things, to take a risk. At this point in your life, you have nobody to fear in your field and, quite frankly, you have nothing left to prove in your field. So I get the fact that you’re okay taking risks.

What I don’t get is the flip side, which is that there are people who become as accomplished as you are who have a very different way of saying things because they know who they are and they know what the audience expects and they know what they’re good at. They know where their gift is and they know how to stay inside their wheelhouse. You don’t ever want to go on a stage and take too many risks. You don’t want to do a project that takes too many risks.

You’re Yo-Yo Ma. You don’t have to take risks at this point to pull in a crowd, to make money, to be regarded around the world. So why do you see it one way and others see it the other way?

Ma: Ultimately, it’s what you believe in and what you think is important and what you think makes sense. That’s where being old, you’ve seen so many iterations of people being afraid. I think the greatest things that keeps us as human beings from really advancing is fear. We are paralyzed by fear.

Tavis: I agree on that.

Ma: Some of that is real, some of it is imagined and, if we can actually conquer our own fears and our own insecurities and are willing to be in our highly competitive, hierarchical society to be vulnerable, in music, that’s a good thing. Vulnerability actually is a strength. Sometimes just strength becomes a weakness.

So in fact, what we’re not looking for is acceptance or success or whatever, but what we’re looking for in life as well as in finding some way to put sounds together, is equilibrium. What we’re looking for is sort of how do we balance all the competing tugs at you and me in life?

How do we put the fears, the risks, the safety nets, all of that, how can we make it a package within ourselves to say, okay, I’m still working on having a year where you say, well, this was a great year because we tried to plan it, but also you took care of all the things that came your way without just saying, well, I can’t be bothered. I think that’s this project.

Tavis: To your beautiful word again. You keep leading me and I just keep following you ’cause you lead so well. So when you thought a word like equilibrium, it raises the question for me how you find that balance, how you find that equilibrium, where you bring together four very talented artists who, at least on paper, have disparate gifts, how do you figure out specifically what the play list is, what the rundown is gonna be?

Ma: You know, it’s funny. It just worked itself out organically. I can tell you, it took over a year to do this project. Never an argument, a harsh word or a moment of tension. It just happened. They worked so hard at it, but it just happened. It was like, okay, let’s try this, let’s try that and that’s amazing.

Tavis: Was there a process – I assume there was – to getting down to these 11 tracks? I mean, how many tracks did you guys play around with?

Ma: I think those were written specifically for the album. I think we’re gonna actually do a sort of like a live theater type of thing later on and we might tour, but this is something that we wanted to do because I so love these musicians.

I mean, Chris Thile with Punch Brothers and Edgar who’s this all-around great musician and Stuart Duncan with his bluegrass experience, but he’s really an inventor in music, and Aoife, who has one of the most beautiful voices in the world and sings so beautifully together with Chris. We actually share the same values and that’s amazing. So people don’t quite know one another that well yet.

I met Aoife through this project and Stuart also, but somehow the chemistry was instantaneous. You must find that as you go around the country, the people you just kind of look at and say, okay, I get you, I know what this is about.

Tavis: That sounds like the moment I met you years ago.

Ma: Well, you’re kind to say that.

Tavis: I mean that seriously, yeah.

Ma: But I do go by that and I think musicians live on the intuition that is less measurable in society. You know, in society we’re so looking always to measure everything.

There are some things that are hard to measure, like trust or hope or vulnerability. When you sense that in people or when people have access to those kinds of things, that’s the chemistry that we’re looking for.

Tavis: Again, you keep leading me. You used the word a moment ago, innovation, and I just saw this yesterday that you were asked to perform at Steve Jobs’ private memorial service.

I saw the “60 Minutes” piece which is profound and provocative in a lot of ways and really, for those of us who didn’t know much about his personal life because he wasn’t very open about it, I think the Walter Isaacson book is gonna open up a lot of people to who Steve Jobs really was, the good, the bad and the ugly, quite frankly, and he signed off on all that.

Ma: Right.

Tavis: But he was a fan of yours. That doesn’t surprise me ’cause innovators respect and love innovators. So tell me about your friendship with Steve Jobs and why you were asked to perform at the memorial.

Ma: I mean, I can’t quite explain that because he’s a big hero of mine, of my whole family, because apples and Macintoshes came into our house and never left.

I really looked up to him as a role model for this kind of way of thinking that in a way combines – he’s talked as an innovator, as a technologist, whatever, but actually the design element of what that is not necessarily innately organic as part of tech industry is so part of him.

I think that he went to the edge with the aesthetic sense, well, people say was his trip to India or if it was the calligraphy lesson that he audited at Reed after he dropped out or it’s looking at the design of products that were so beautiful. Wherever that aesthetic sense came from that pushed to try and find simplicity and beauty in a new way of thinking that was enabled by technology, I think that is an amazing combination.

He went to the edge. We’re all trying to go a little bit to the edge to find that moment of creativity and it’s so sad that he passed away and I myself am gonna go buy the book and read more about my friend and figure out how this chemistry developed because I can’t explain it.

Tavis: Let me close where we began ’cause I want to make room for you and the band to share this wonderful music in this performance. I mentioned at the top that you, at the age of seven, performed for John F. Kennedy long before that building – let me be clear.

You were in that same building before it was renamed the Kennedy Center. So you’re there performing for John Kennedy in the building before it bears his name. Do you recall that? I assume you do. You recall that performance itself?

Ma: I do recall it was shortly after my family and I moved from France to the United States, so I probably barely spoke English. What I remember was that we went to Washington. I met a great cellist named Bernard Greenhouse and then somehow I associated Greenhouse with the White House. It’s like wait a minute, White House, Greenhouse [laugh]. You know, it’s a seven-year-old’s point of view.

Then, of course, I saw at the performance the person that made the greatest impression was the guy who was conducting the National Symphony Orchestra who was not a musician, but he was the funniest person I had ever seen.

His name was Danny Kaye, so I thought this guy was great and I wanted to be like him [laugh]. Only later on did I understand that, oh, well, you know, it’s like you have different priorities as a seven-year-old.

Tavis: You meet John Kennedy and you’re turned on by Danny Kaye [laugh].

Ma: Well, you know, it’s not for me. I mean, I still loved Danny, but I obviously have a lot more appreciation for JFK [laugh]. Kaye, same name.

Tavis: And that’s why I love Yo-Yo Ma, as you can tell from this conversation. I get this every time I’m in his presence. His humanity is just so effusive. There’s just so much of it, so abundant, and I’m always honored to have him on this program and especially when he decides to perform for us, which he will do right now in about 30 seconds.

Yo-Yo Ma and company will perform a song from this new project. Once again, it’s called “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” Yo-Yo, I love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

Ma: You’re the best.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Ma: Thank you, sir.

Tavis: Joined by four close friends and talented musicians in their own right, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile and Aoife O’Donovan, here is Yo-Yo Ma performing a track from “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” called “Here and Heaven.”


Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm