A Musician of Many Cultures Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was born in France to Chinese parents, and he has lived in the U.S. since he was seven. Instead of trying to choose among these cultural roots, Ma decided to embrace them all. He believes doing so has enriched his life and music.
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A Musician of Many Cultures

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A Musician of Many Cultures

A Musician of Many Cultures

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Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe in family.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This, I believe.


Our This I Believe essay today comes from one of the world's most accomplished and versatile musicians, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo Ma has the ability speak to audiences all over the world through his music. In fact, the motto of his Silk Road Ensemble is What Happens When Strangers Meet?

Here's our series creator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: Yo-Yo Ma is known for his blending of musical categories, and perhaps, even inventing a few. He recently completed the tour playing music from Italy, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Austria and Armenia. The range of his musical interest is echoed in his belief in crossing borders, boundaries and even identity.

Here is Yo-Yo Ma with his essay for This I Believe.

Mr. YO-YO MA (Cellist): I believe in the infinite variety of human expression. I grew up in three cultures. I was born in Paris, my parents were from China and I was brought up mostly in America. When I was young, this was very confusing. Everyone said that their culture was best. But I knew they couldn't all be right. I felt that there was an expectation that I would choose to be Chinese or French or American. For many years, I bounced among the three trying on each, but never being wholly comfortable. I hoped that I wouldn't have to choose, but I didn't know what that meant and how exactly to not choose.

However, the process of trying on each culture taught me something. As I struggled to belong, I came to understand what made each one unique. At that point, I realized that I didn't need to choose one culture to the exclusion of another, but instead, I could choose from all three.

The values I selected would become part of who I was, but no one culture needed to win. I could honor the cultural depth and longevity of my Chinese heritage while feeling just as passionate about the deep artistic traditions of the French and the American commitment to opportunity and the future.

So rather than settling on any one of the cultures in which I grew up, I now choose to explore many more cultures and find elements to love in each. Every day, I make an effort to go toward what I don't understand. This wandering leads to the accidental learning that continually shapes my life.

As I work in music today, I try to implement this idea — that the music I play, like me, doesn't belong to only one culture. In recent years, I have explored many musical traditions. Along the way, I've met musicians who share a belief in the creative power that exists at the intersection of cultures. These musicians have generously become my guides to their traditions. Thanks to them and their music I have found new meaning in my own music making.

It is extraordinary the way people, music and cultures develop. The paths and experiences that guide them are unpredictable. Shaped by our families, neighborhoods, cultures and countries, each of us ultimately goes through this process of incorporating what we learn with who we are and who we seek to become.

As we struggle to find our individual voices, I believe we must look beyond the voice we've been assigned and find our place among the tones and timbre of human expression.

(Soundbite of music)

ALLISON: Yo-Yo Ma with his essay for This I Believe. Yo-Yo Ma suggested playing this music after his essay, it's from the Silk Road Ensemble's latest CD, "New Impossibilities."

(Soundbite of music)

ALLISON: Yo-Yo Ma said the challenge of summarizing his personal beliefs in 500 words was a difficult one. But we invite you to try it, too. Check our Web site at npr.org.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

SIEGEL: Next Sunday on Weekend Edition, you can hear a This I Believe essay from listener Martha Leaf(ph) on her belief in being honest with children.


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