Near the beginning of a new documentary called The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma tells a joke.
A little boy says to his father, “When I grow up I want to be a musician.”
“Sorry son,” the father replies, “you can’t do both.”
It’s a subject Ma knows something about. Performing since the age of five, by seven had played for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Since then he has appeared with all the world’s great orchestras, released 90 albums and won eighteen Grammys.
“The idea of being a musician means that you have access to wonder,” he says. “When you become too adult-like and concerned about responsibility you tend to push wonder aside. That moment where you take a step back and look at where we are and look at what the world is about. Those are decisions we have to remake every single day, to engage, to love and care for and to recommit. It’s a form of positive will and expression. If you don’t have that you can’t do anything. To me it is the ultimate antidote to paranoia, to hate, to terror is to care about things. To care about truth and be open.”
The cellist’s openness led him on a twenty-year journey to form The Silk Road Ensemble, a loose collective of international master musicians named after the ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean. Featuring instruments from the Silk Road region, Ma mixes-and-matches his cello with the exotic sounds of the pipa, a Chinese short-necked plucked lute, a Mongolian horse head fiddle called a morin khuur and a Shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute among others to produce an otherworldly sound that blends different cultures and styles.
“It’s not so much what makes stuff different but more the fact that we work in such a connected world,” says Ma. “Part of it is that and part of it is to recognize the strength of individuality but also inherent in that strength is flexibility. It doesn’t mean that because the bagpipe is louder than the violin we should never put the two together. It’s more like, unlikely bedfellows, ‘O my gosh, there could be something extraordinary that could come from that.’”
The movie, directed by Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar and a Grammy for his 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, chronicles the evolution of the collective and the individual journeys of the players. Wrapped around those portraits is the story of the group’s most famous member. Ma is revealed to be a thoughtful man with a wandering, restless creative spirit.
“I was scared to death before doing something like this,” he says. “I’m drawn to what I don’t know versus what I do know. I think my life is kind of boring because if you ask me questions about myself you will very often get the same answers. I know the answers. What little I know I can tell you about but that is not particularly interesting. What I don’t know is, for me, the source of all knowledge, everything you know is actually very little. We are constantly trying to understand more and moving forward can actually help us reconsider old things and decisions.”