Abu Dhabi Festival 2017: Yo-Yo Ma’s roadmap of peace

For cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, music is a bridge into the narrative of people's lives and to shared understanding.

Yo-Yo Ma says his performances are all about connecting with the audience, rather than technical virtuosity. Jeff Fusco / Getty Images
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If there's one place where the whole concept behind American cellist Yo-Yo Ma's groundbreaking Silk Road Ensemble makes sense, it's surely Abu Dhabi. Inspired by the famous route used by merchants, pilgrims and soldiers leading from Europe through the Middle East to China, the award-winning virtuoso formed the multinational ensemble as a non-profit organisation back in 2000 to explore and celebrate cross-cultural collaborations, and advance global understanding.

It is, in effect, the UAE’s pioneering sense of innovation and cooperation in a musical form, so it’s no surprise that Ma loves his visits here. When he takes to the stage at the Abu Dhabi Festival on Friday it will mark his fourth time.

“I have to pinch myself that you can find a group of people here that are achieving exactly what we’ve been trying to do over the last 18 years,” he says, from his Abu Dhabi hotel.

“There’s a fabulous commitment to combine culture with economic resources and political will, and these cultural conversations are huge in terms of connecting people. You have so many world cultures within the population – name another place that is so open to this idea.

“It gives us a kind of confidence that maybe the Silk Road Ensemble was the right thing to do, because the people I meet here are obviously thinking so carefully about their place in the world and are looking for things that are really meaningful to do. To be part of this festival is unbelievable, because I genuinely think it helps us to imagine a future that is worth building towards. That’s very rare.”

So when Ma plays at the Emirates Palace Auditorium on Friday, he might allow himself a moment of quiet satisfaction and reflection that the 17-year journey with his ensemble has been such a success.

Featuring musicians from more than 20 countries, last year's Grammy Award-winning album Sing Me Home is a melting pot of intoxicating sounds and instruments, starring everyone from Chinese pipa player Wu Man to Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh. An emotional version of Ustad Vilayat Khan's Madhoushi is performed by his sitar-playing son, Shujaat Husain Khan, next to Kaoru Watanabe's take on a traditional Japanese song.

"It was a recording we made parallel to The Music of Strangers, our documentary film," explains Ma. "What we really wanted to do is react to the present world situation where mobility, immigration and refugees is such an issue. A lot of people all around the world are moving. Some are displaced, some come from intolerable situations but everybody has a sense of hope.

"In this present day, sometimes you can't go to your physical home, so you have to have other means to keep a mental or psychological home for your precious memories. Music is a wonderful way to store those memories and connections, and that's what Sing Me Home explores."

This sense of narrative to music and performance has been key to Ma’s career. He can play Bach’s incredibly demanding six suites for unaccompanied cello, and did so to incredible effect at London’s Proms 18 months ago.

He’s recorded up to 100 albums across a glittering musical career that began as a child prodigy when he was just four years old. And yet he remains spectacularly humble and approachable: for Ma, performance is less about showing off technical excellence than connecting with an audience.

“It’s all about narrative,” he says. “So many people have histories that are very poignant, and this collective of people that has come together through the Silk Road Ensemble has become a safe home in a way, where ideas and thoughts and feelings are treasured.

“I’m really proud of that. Humbled, actually, by the stories people have shared. And by allowing me and members of the ensemble to enter into their lives, you become a part-owner of their stories, which is something I feel we have to do through music. So it’s not just entertainment: the music is a witness to something.”

And nowhere is that more striking on Sing Me Home than on the vibrant Wedding, by clarinettist Azmeh. Inspired by a recent trip the musician took to the Syrian countryside where he was amazed that people were still falling in love amid falling bombs, it acts as a message of both defiance and hope.

“What Kinan does is put an unbelievably dignified human face to a horrendous tragedy,” explains Ma.

"The fact that he continues to play and express humanity like he does on Wedding is such an important statement. The world is falling apart but humans still have a right to be good to one another."

The fact that Ma even suggests the world is falling apart is surprising; Sing Me Home is as effervescent, joyful and hopeful as the cellist himself. After all, this is a man who has appeared on Sesame Street twice.

But he also felt moved to post a message on the Silk Road Ensemble website in February, expressing “deep concern, disappointment and sadness” about Donald Trump’s infamous order to suspend travel from seven countries to the United States – which immediately affected Azmeh’s travel plans.

Tellingly, Ma has actually played for previous US presidents, including at Barack Obama’s inauguration. But his statement wasn’t just bemoaning the fact the ensemble was going to find it much harder to bring together its musicians, but that Trump’s travel ban was a move at odds with the group’s philosophy – that their collaborative music brings cultures together in mutual understanding and enjoyment.

“By the way, I’m an immigrant,” says the 61 year-old, who was born in Paris to Chinese parents and moved to New York when he was seven.

“I know what it’s like to belong to a lot of places, and having different realities in your head is good for imagination and creativity. The six American Nobel Prize winners last year were all immigrants, and that’s an interesting connection. Immigrants will see things differently, they have to adjust, get used to different points of view.”

So for all the spectacular music across the Silk Road Ensemble’s six albums, the group represents so much more than the pure enjoyment to be had from listening to its unique repertoire.

It’s a message Ma repeats more than once in our conversation – as perhaps one might expect from a United Nations Messenger of Peace – but he’s convinced that the best way to build cultural understanding is not to close doors but to engage, and to share ideas and experiences within communities and across traditional boundaries.

“If we do our job, we’ll have people who are more empathetic to one another and possess a greater level of understanding and tolerance,” he says.

“Of course people are different, and have different habits. But you respect that, because you see what celebrating differences can actually produce, not only in terms of wonderful music in our case, but in the way it builds trust.

“Imagine a world that, say, has 30 per cent more trust. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”