CNBC Meets: Defining Values

Yo-Yo Ma: The messenger of music

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Yo-Yo Ma:
The messenger
of music

World tour

Yo-Yo Ma, the internationally-acclaimed cellist, has a noble aim when it comes to taking the Bach Cello Suites around the world: to heal cultural divides, as well as to re-examine the meaning of his own life.

Currently on tour until November, Ma will be traveling to 36 locations across six continents, playing the six Cello Suites at each venue.

I think the six Bach suites are my calling card. It's the most personal and universal music that I know.”
Yo-Yo Ma
Ma first played the cello at age four. He joked it was a compromise between a violin and a double bass.

He was first introduced to Johann Sebastian Bach’s music at age four, and he has recorded the cello suites at various stages of his life — in his twenties, his forties, and now in his sixties.

Ma was contemplative about the world tour, “In my twenties it was so exciting to meet the world for the first time and to discover all these new places, new friends and whatever,” he told “CNBC Meets: Defining Values.”

“And then obviously with each decade you re-examine the meaning of life, the meaning of what I do every day, same instruments, same four strings, but after 50 years, what matters?”

For Ma, what matters is using music to lend order to a world of confusion, to bring people together and discuss how they can help each other.

“I think the six Bach suites are my calling card. It's the most personal and universal music that I know. And so, part of this effort is to bring my deep concern and passion and curiosity about wherever I go, how people live, how people think, what their needs are, with saying, ‘Well this is my calling card. This is what I have to offer’. They seem to hit a most human of nerves that can be healing, that can actually get to people when they're in moments of doubt or crisis or just general anxiety.”

Ma’s repertoire goes much further than Bach. He embraces world music, from bluegrass and hip-hop to the Argentine tango and Chinese melodies, a sign of his multicultural outlook.

“Music was very personal, but I was really anxious to try to know the world,” he told CNBC. “I was curious about everything, because I didn't know why anything existed … And I wanted to know why, I was like that two-year-old that never stopped asking why, which is incredibly annoying. And I'm still doing the same thing.”

Born in Paris.
Selects cello as instrument of choice at age four.
Performs at the “American Pageant of the Arts” in front of President John F. Kennedy.
Ma and his sister perform “Sonata of Sammartini” on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Aged 15, Ma enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard School.
Establishes the Silk Road Project to encourage cross-cultural exchange.
Awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France.
Embarks on world tour of the Bach Cello Suites.
Ma is taking Bach’s cello suites around the world after recording them for the third time. Here he performs in Amsterdam in 1993.
Child prodigy

Ma was born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese immigrants; his mother was a singer and his father was a violinist and music professor. At four years old he was being taught the violin, but Ma preferred the cello. He joked that it was a compromise between the violin and the double bass.

“Because I did it (played cello) since I was very little, I didn't go through that conscious phase of saying, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do.’ And so, it wasn't until late in life, that I thought, ‘Yeah, I'm really happy to be a musician.’ But it took quite a long time of exploring, before I could come to that decision.”

It was soon clear that Ma and his sister were child prodigies. Ma described himself as a product of his experience — a child of “tiger” parents who instilled a work ethic in him and his sister, Yeou-Cheng, from an early age. The children were home-schooled, and their father taught them that nothing was hard: They could conquer any complicated piece of music by breaking it into small parts. This upbringing sheds some light on Ma’s work ethic and consistency.

“The idea of culture starts with the idea of cultivating oneself, right?” he said. “It's like, you can't change the world, but you can change yourself. And that's the most difficult thing.”

In 1962, Ma’s family uprooted to New York from Paris. A meeting with world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals led to him playing, as a young “toothless cellist,” in front of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. Years later, Ma discovered that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had also been in the room. He went on to play in front of nine American presidents, most recently Donald Trump at the Armistice Day in November 2018 in Paris.

At the Juilliard School for performing arts, Leonard Rose became his teacher, lifelong friend and mentor. But instead of launching into a career as a professional musician, Ma went to Harvard to major in anthropology, following his older sister who was studying medicine.

What is driving me to do this is the experience I've had, seeing people's lives, that they're going through with difficulty.”
Yo-Yo Ma

“I knew I had a lot to learn. And going away to college was an incredible opportunity to just live, try out things. And so, yes, I loved anthropology because anthropology helped me look at all the different cultures that I came from.”

In 1998 he set up Silkroad (then called the Silk Road Project), a not-for-profit organization that promotes multicultural artistic exchange. Eight years later, he became a United Nations Messenger of Peace — fitting for a man whose name means “friendship” in Chinese.

“What is driving me to do this is the experience I've had, seeing people's lives, that they're going through with difficulty. Whether it's the middle class, or whether it's people in our neighborhoods, or people far away,” he told CNBC.

“I mean, you see a lot when you travel. And the news cycle is also a place where you look at the world. So, between my own experiences and whatever I can read and gather, I see how much needs to be done, that requires the whole community to be involved.”

Ma, 63, said he feels ‘lucky’ to have found his purpose in life, but he continues to challenge himself.
I'm incredibly privileged to be able to go to different places where people actually want me to do something that I love to do, how good is that? But is that enough?”
Yo-Yo Ma
Searching for meaning

Over six decades, Yo-Yo Ma has made recordings for 100 albums, won 19 Grammys, and has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award (2008), the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010) and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for France (2016). But Ma does not lose sight of what’s important in his life.

Not long after marrying his wife, Jill Hornor, he underwent major surgery to correct a curvature in his spine, and he feared he might not be able to continue to play professionally. Luckily, he made a full recovery. In 1983 he became a parent, and he now has two children, Nicholas and Emily.

“I think the only recognition that's not an illusion, is when a family member looks at you and says, whatever they say. It's my grandson taking me by the hand and say(ing), ‘Oh, pa, come’ … the rest is, I mean, it's icing on the cake. It's wonderful, I don't deny any of these fantastic honors. But really, we know (what’s important). As parents, we know.”

“I think it was maybe one of the best lessons to realize that … life is much more than whatever you do,” he said. “You have to find it. So, that was actually a liberation, because after the operation, I could still play. That was extra time. It's like people recover from serious illnesses. They feel like they were given a gift of time.”

Though his career has been very successful, Ma has always had deep periods of reflection about his place in society. He said that being confused as a child about what he wanted to do has helped him discover his purpose in being a musician, a parent and a global citizen.

“That was always a bit of an internal conflict,” he said. “Because, I feel very lucky, I'm incredibly privileged to be able to go to different places where people actually want me to do something that I love to do, how good is that? But is that enough? Am I making the right kind of contribution? Am I a good guest in the community? Do I understand who I'm playing for and what their needs are? So, these are the questions I try to ask myself and try to answer at various times.”

When it comes to his legacy, the musician was keen to shift the spotlight away from his own achievements and instead look to the potential of future generations.

“I believe very much that it's important to live in such a way that you can leave with a light footprint,” he said. “I do believe in culture, things that people have built, the foundations of knowledge, of science, of arts, of governance. If they are solid enough, then, it's something, a block of knowledge … that other people can build on top of.”


Writer: Rachael Revesz
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editor: Matt Clinch
Series Presenter and Executive Producer: Tania Bryer
Series Executive Producer: Martin Conroy
Series Producer: Ged Cleugh
Series Associate Producer: Michelle Blackwell
Images: CNBC and Getty Images