Yo-Yo Ma On 'Songs Of Comfort,' 'Not Our First Goat Rodeo' And Live Music Hear the cellist talk about the purpose of music in the face of racial tension and health crises, plus his new album, Not Our First Goat Rodeo, which reunites him with old bluegrass buddies.

Yo-Yo Ma: Goats, Rodeos And The Power Of Music

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Between the pandemic, the economic crisis and now protests, 2020 has already been a lot. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been coping and trying to help the rest of us cope with music. Ma has been posting videos of himself playing what he calls "Songs Of Comfort."


KELLY: He's also releasing new music - a new album with Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, all musicians better known in the Americana music community. Now, I say new album because their first, "The Goat Rodeo Sessions," dropped nine years ago. This follow-up is titled "Not Our First Goat Rodeo."


KELLY: I started by asking Yo-Yo Ma why a "Goat Rodeo" reunion seemed like a good idea.

YO-YO MA: Oh, my gosh. You know, we had that idea while we were working on the first "Goat Rodeo" because the chemistry was so wonderful between the four of us. And so we thought this was time to put another set of ideas down to mark, you know, a certain kind of progression.

KELLY: So what did you want to show? What do you want to do in this album that you didn't in the first one nine years ago?

MA: Well, I'm so old now. So I wanted to show nothing because (laughter)...

KELLY: You're over it (laughter).

MA: Yeah. I'm so over it. So what's interesting is that the music is even more vibrant. I think there's more there. There's even greater richness in textures and in content. I think just listen to the first song. It gets us in the mood, and it puts our minds and hearts in the right place.


KELLY: Meanwhile, you have been doing "Songs Of Comfort." Explain how this idea came to you, what you've been doing.

MA: This is something that kind of came up spontaneously because this is at the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, it may have been the last time we were all in an office together. We talked about, you know, what can we do? We're thinking of the frontline workers. And I think one of us blurted out, well, we could do songs of comfort. And I said, great. I have a cello here. Let's just sit down. And that's how it started.


MA: And we were thinking about how to be useful, basically. How can we be helpful during this time? Who needs a musician, right? What's the purpose of music during a time like this? - and the idea of providing some form of comfort and then of hope.

KELLY: You're making me think of something you told me when we talked before, the last time I got to interview you. You said you believe music was invented to help us figure out who we are. And I want to apply that now and why you picked these songs as the ones that we need to hear and we need to share in this moment.

MA: I think one of the things I think about is one of my heroes was Leonard Bernstein, who said when JFK was killed - he said, this is our reply to violence - to make music more intensely and more beautifully and more devotedly than ever before.


KELLY: Are you confident that we will be back, in the not-too-too-distant future, in the concert halls that you love to play? You know, I'm thinking about the audience packed indoors, side by side. I'm thinking about an orchestra. How do you socially distance an orchestra? Do you think this is a pleasure we have not lost forever?

MA: Getting back to something, for me, is not so much getting back to the concert hall, but to get back to values. And so I think there's something communal in all of us that has to be dealt with. And I know that our profession is very, very much worried about all this. But I think there are ways of dealing with things. For example, a lot of people are thinking about doing live drive-in events. And drive-ins are actually part of our culture. Cars are some of the best PPEs that we have.

KELLY: I would love to come to a drive-in performance where you're up there doing box cello suites or whatever you want to do. That would be great.

MA: Don't you think?

KELLY: Yeah.

MA: I think this is a moment for creativity, for people to say, actually, let's dig into our histories and see what actually might make something really cool and maybe even nostalgic.

KELLY: I - Yo-Yo Ma, before I let you go, I do want to ask you - as a country, we are engaged in a conversation on race just unfolding everywhere. And I am curious - in your world, the classical music world is seen, for better or worse, as largely white. The audience is seen as often skewing older and white. What is the conversation inside classical music right now? Is there a deliberate conversation unfolding about making more space for black musicians?

MA: Absolutely. I think this is such a good question, and I think this is a really good moment to move in all of those directions. There was a conversation hosted where the head of an organization called Sphinx, which actually supports young black and brown musicians who have been working for the last 20, 30 years - and the result of that was actually seeing that, well, we've got the goods. We've got the talent. And it's now a moment of action. And I think that this is a moment where, yes, black lives do matter, but black lives in every profession matters. And we're not too busy to do that.

KELLY: This feels like the right moment to ask you to play.


KELLY: You were going to play us "Going Home."

MA: Yes. And I have to tell you something about it because "Going Home" is actually written by a composer who came to the United States in the late 1800s. He taught his students, don't compose like me. Listen. Listen to all the music around you. Listen to the music of African Americans. Listen to the music of Indigenous people. Listen to the music of immigrants. And so his students did, and they actually then passed on those same values to their students. And their students became Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. And the name of the composer is Antonin Dvorak.


KELLY: That is Yo-Yo Ma performing the theme "Going Home" from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9. His new album with Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan is "Not Our First Goat Rodeo."

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