Watch Yo-Yo Ma Play A Moving Tribute To Going Home : Deceptive Cadence The cellist and founder of the Silk Road Ensemble talks about how his concept of "roots" has expanded — and how music happens between the notes on a page.
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Watch Yo-Yo Ma Play A Moving Tribute To Going Home

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Watch Yo-Yo Ma Play A Moving Tribute To Going Home

Watch Yo-Yo Ma Play A Moving Tribute To Going Home

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

YO-YO MA: This is Yo-Yo Ma sitting in for Robert Siegel, who's going to grab the mic and take over. [empty]

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'd be very flattered if you would be my stand-in, Yo-Yo.

MA: Hi Robert. How are you doing?

SIEGEL: All right. I'm OK. Here we are.

MA: OK.

SIEGEL: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma went searching for some of the greatest musicians on the planet about 16 years ago. He found them in places like Mongolia, Istanbul, Iran, China. And together, they formed the Silk Road Ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The goal of the ensemble is to transcend traditional music by mixing it up. The ensemble includes a Syrian clarinetist, a Japanese percussionist, an Israeli violinist, an Indian tabla player - you get the idea.

Over the years, the ensemble has recorded six albums and performed around the globe. And now it's the subject of a documentary called "The Music Of Strangers." Yo-Yo Ma joins us to talk about it. Yo-Yo, thanks for joining us once again.

MA: Robert, it's great to be on your show.

SIEGEL: Near the beginning of this film, we see you at age 7 being introduced by Leonard Bernstein to play before President Kennedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE")

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: (As Leonard Bernstein) There has come to us this year a young man aged 7, bearing the name Yo-Yo Ma, a Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: You, from an early age, were recognized as a virtuous cellist. Had you done nothing but play the cello all these years, that would be quite an accomplishment - be quite a career. And somehow, that seems to be, at some level, insufficient to you. You must do more than that, is what I sense.

MA: Well, I think - didn't someone say that people are either foxes are hedgehogs? Am I getting it right?

SIEGEL: Isaiah Berlin wrote that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog only knows one big thing.

MA: Right. You know, you can get to truth by going deep in one thing. But I think, for me, the idea is to develop enough technique so that you could use that technique to explore.

SIEGEL: Well, let's talk about the exploration you've done with the Silk Road Ensemble that you founded in 2000. Tell me about how the Silk Road Ensemble makes music. I mean, it's - no one else has written for this assortment of instruments.

MA: Well, you basically use your ears (laughter).

SIEGEL: OK (laughter).

MA: We usually have a leader. When one person leads, everybody else follows. And then the next person leads and everybody follows. So the...

SIEGEL: You're writing it down?

MA: Sometimes, we write it down. And so for people who don't read - then people who do read will help and say, well, you know, you do this, remember this. We're constantly learning from each other or teaching one another what we know. Nobody's made to look like a fool except me.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) And it's fun? It's fun to do this?

MA: It's totally fun.

SIEGEL: This documentary, "The Music Of Strangers" explores the lives of a few members of the Silk Road Ensemble. And one of them I want you to talk about is Cristina Pato, who's a bagpipe player from Galicia. She is a rock star.

MA: She really is a rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE")

CRISTINA PATO: Galicia is in the Northwest corner of Spain. And, geographically speaking, it has been always kind of isolated. It has its own language, its own culture. And if you were to shrink everything to just one sound, the sound of the bagpipe is the sound of Galicia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: She's a formidable person. She's so well known in that area - very impoverished part of Spain. And if you were a rock star in a small community, it can be suffocating because everybody knows everything that you do. And she - being a curious, exploratory musician - obviously knew that there was a big world beyond the gaita or the bagpipes.

And, like me, you know, she became an immigrant. But she doesn't lose her deep connection to Galicia and to her family. And I think there's something quite creative at the margins.

SIEGEL: Another member of the ensemble whose story figures prominently in the documentary is Kayhan - is it Kalhor?

MA: Kalhor, yes.

SIEGEL: He's an Iranian - a Kurdish-Iranian. He plays kind of an Iranian violin known as the kamancheh and - well, you've spoken of him as a kindred spirit on stage. Here you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE")

MA: I'm Yo-Yo Ma, and this is my brother Kayhan Kalhor.

(APPLAUSE)

MA: We were twins, but we were separated at birth.

Yeah, but he has better hair.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

MA: I'm very bitter about that.

SIEGEL: You've played quite a stunning duet with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE")

KAYHAN KALHOR: Later on when the war started - was a very, very difficult period.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: There's something about Kayhan that goes beyond the sound that we make. Isaac Stern said it, I think, best. He said music is what happens in between the notes. So it's not the notes themselves, but it's how you get from one note to another. And Kayhan has so much of the unheard of, the unseen spaces, the vast distances between two notes.

SIEGEL: Toward the end of this film, we see an old scene of you on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE")

FRED ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Did you ever play happy things or sad things or angry things just because you wanted to?

MA: (As himself) Oh, sure. One of my favorite was "The Swan," which was (playing cello).

Let me tell you, when people say, you know, you're an old man. What are you proud of? I say having been on "Mister Rogers," "Sesame Street" and "Arthur" and all the children's shows. Why? Because when you are on children's show, you are a guest in their living room, in their mind. They are not coming to you. You're going to them. And if they accept you, it's forever.

So now I meet people who are in their 30s who say, you know, I saw you on "Mister Rogers" and and this is what it made me want want to do.

SIEGEL: As deep as you are into the Silk Road Ensemble project for so many years now, do you play a piece of Bach or Brahms differently than you did before?

MA: You know, this last year I did all the Bach suites in a row, almost as a test as a 60 year old, whether, one, can I do it, but more importantly, what am I trying to say with those suites? It's a very spiritual experience to go through them all.

I love these pieces even more, and I do think I play them better and, of course, I can be fooling myself. But I do think that as a result of the exploration, I come back to my first home with greater love, with greater dedication and commitment because it's all the same thing.

SIEGEL: Yo-Yo Ma, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

MA: Robert, always great to talk with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: "The Music Of Strangers" is a documentary about Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. It opens today in New York and Los Angeles. The ensemble also has a new CD out called "Sing Me Home."

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