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Yo-Yo Ma: Family is best investment

Yo-Yo MaYo-Yo Ma, one of the classical world's highest-selling solo instrumentalists, has been part of the global music community for 45 years. One of the world's great ambassadors for music and its role in society, Ma boasts a discography of more than 50 albums and 14 Grammy awards.

Born in Paris in 1955 to a talented Chinese family, Ma was the ultimate prodigy. He gave his first recital when he was just 5 years old, after playing the cello for only one year. Soon, his name was being mentioned in the same breath as the greats, Mstislav Rostropovich and Pablo Casals.

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He had an earlier false start on the violin. But on a promise to his parents, he stuck with the cello. What he didn't stick with was the well-worn career path of a classical musician. He's jammed with Argentine tango bands, traded tunes with Bushmen in the Kalahari, and even performed with the Muppets on Sesame Street.

He's a graduate of Harvard University, from which he received a honorary doctorate. To help young musicians, Ma includes formal and informal classes in his regular tour schedule. His multi-faceted career also includes the Silk Road Project, an organization he founded to explore the musical currents of countries along the ancient Central Asian trade routes.

Ma's standing may be modest when you stack his record sales against some popular artists, but he's ranked in the celestial league of the classical world. Fans pack houses regularly to witness the rapturous way he bows his beloved instrument, as though channeling the spirits of the great composers. He says he's striving to create music that helps to interpret what it means to be human.

The message appears to be getting through. On, or offstage, Yo-Yo Ma is now a household name. He and his wife, Jill, have two children, Nicholas and Emily.

His latest album, Yo-Yo Ma: Obrigado Brazil, went on sale in July from Sony Classical.

Bankrate: Your latest recording is of Brazilian music. You already won a Grammy for your first Latin CD. Why go there again?

Yo-Yo Ma: Argentina and Brazil are actually really close yet they are distinct sounds. Cultural decisions affected cultural results. I think Buenos Aires was considered the most European of the South American cities back in the '30s. It was built like a European city, whereas Brazil took a different tack. It recognized the variety of people who were in Brazil. It made both a political and cultural decision that was its identity and as a result, Brazilian music, which has so many rich veins, is so creative. With each decade, a new music pops out, but it stays Brazilian. And I thought, "How could we not explore this incredible music which I've always loved?"

Bankrate: Although it's your CD and it's clearly marketed as a cello work, it takes some hard listening to actually hear the sound of your cello. You hear the vocalist and the other instruments very clearly, but not really the cello until much later.

Ma: I think it's fine that I play the cello, but actually, the point was that this music is just so seductive, and it takes you to a very special place. And actually there's a funny Boston story about the singer. I live in Cambridge, and I was listening to Rosa Passos' voice and thought she was just so great. She lives far away and doesn't travel to the States very much. So there was a question if we were really going to be able to get together and work together, but then I get this letter and some additional recordings from her brother-in-law, who just happens to live in Newton, Mass. It was so meant to be.

Bankrate: You came right off working on a French work for the cello, to this Brazilian work, what was that like?

Ma: In a way, the French album was my first world, having been born in Paris. This was the first music I heard. As you get older, you re-examine music and each time you re-examine something, you bring new experiences to it. I thought this was a wonderful time to celebrate again that music I loved so much from that golden age of creativity in France.

Bankrate: How do you remain so enthusiastic about venturing into new territory with your music? I once read that you were searching for your sound, is that still a part of it?

Ma: Yeah, that was my teacher from college. Aren't we all searching? Sound for musicians, equals meaning. In a way, as long as we're alive, we're looking for meaning at every stage. As a traveling itinerant musician, I'm a reporter, and it's my job to report what I've seen, to share with a community of people what I learn from other places.

Bankrate: You travel constantly, performing 70 to 80 times a year, but you make a point to take time out to teach. What do you tell your students about being successful financially and personally as a professional musician?

Ma: The first thing I say is, you have to know one tradition really deeply and you have to identify a need in your community for that tradition. You know, everyone needs music, but the world never needs another musician. We need more doctors and firemen, but no one says we need 30 more musicians in our community, so every musician therefore has to find how they can respond to the need in the community and that becomes their identity.

Bankrate: Your early childhood years in Paris were marked by poverty, do you ever remember back to those lean years? Your mother once wrote that there was rarely enough money to heat the apartment.

Ma: My parents went to France to study and they loved it so much, they ended up staying for 27 years. I looked back to my parents who made very deliberate choices to become musicians. They just loved learning and that is what marked me. And so I make deliberate choices in my projects, The Silk Road Project, Brazilian music, and I'm privileged that the public seems to be embracing those choices.

Bankrate: And in effect, the public has made you a very financially comfortable performer. Do you manage your own money?

Ma: I really don't. That is handled by an agency; I don't follow the stock market myself.

Bankrate: But the purchase of your cello. It's worth ...

Ma: ... a house. A really big house.

Bankrate: OK, like $2.5 million?

Ma: Yeah, it's a Montagnana cello made in Venice in 1733, I believe.

Bankrate: Which you once left in a cab?

Ma: No one will let me forget that.

Bankrate: Sorry.

Ma: It's like one of those times when you've done something really stupid and it feels like the whole world is watching.

Bankrate: Or at least heard about it. Would you consider the Montagnana to be your smartest investment?

Ma: No. Family. At the end of life, you never regret not having done another project, but you always regret if you have not spent enough time with loved ones.

Mabel Jong is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

-- Posted: Aug. 21, 2003




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