Yo-Yo Ma Image Credit: AMPAS

Audience members were enthralled as the internationally-renowned Silk Road Ensemble took them on a musical journey across Italy, Turkey, India, Iraqi Kurdistan, China and Syria.

The 13-member ensemble performed at the closing of the 20th edition of the Abu Dhabi Festival on March 31. The annual month-long cultural celebration was organised by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF).

Weekend Review spoke to Yo Yo Ma, celebrated Chinese-American cellist, and the ensemble’s founder about his interest in exploring Emirati culture, the importance of global unity, the vital role of culture in each society, nurturing the talents of younger generations and more.

“This [was] my third trip... the last time I was in Abu Dhabi [in 2011], I visited schools [as part of Abu Dhabi Classics]... I’d love for our group to interact with [pupils], one of our great joys is forming connections with younger generations and exploring things through their eyes,” Ma said.

The Grammy award-winning musician, 61, added: “we may have different cultures and experiences but talking through music is how we understand each other. It’s something that unites us on a fundamental level.”

Ma established the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000. The group features performers and composers from over 20 countries along the former Euro-Asian Silk Route.

“Culture is critical to our understanding of ourselves and each other,” he said, “it is part of our human history, the culmination of different subjects such as history, the humanities, sciences.., and the UAE has an incredibly rich cultural heritage that I’m interested in exploring.”

The ensemble has performed in more than 30 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and North America, and has embraced artists passionate about cross-cultural understanding and innovation. The group has recorded six albums, and their latest Sing Me Home, released in 2016, recently won ‘Best World Music Album’ at the 2017 Grammys.

“My friends and colleagues are very excited about it. I’m very proud of their achievement. I’ve seen everyone develop as artists and human beings and so they own that Grammy. I was just a participant. I was happy to step back and let them take the lead, I trust them so much; their taste, instinct, direction. They’re my scouts for society,” said Ma, who has 18 awards under his belt.

This is a concept that resounds deeply with the UN ambassador for peace, who stated that his ideal society has an equal balance between political tolerance, a healthy economy and culture.

“People in the cultural sector, we, in this moment, with great respect, want to offer some solutions or at least be a part of process to find solutions for what we are all going through right now. We can offer an independent voice, act like scouts, like scientists, who are always looking ahead, see what’s coming up,” he explained.

Ma also noted that: “I think historically there have been instances when you get people who have important messages and ultimately, it’s up to us whether or not to listen to them and believe them, to be ‘turned on’ or ‘turned off’. [But] we need to stay awake and listen to see if what they have to say is worthwhile — that’s very important — we need more wise people to act as scouts or guide us.”

He also stressed the importance of addressing the varied circumstances that we face, whether on an individual level or much larger, such as terrorist acts, natural disasters and global warming.

“It’s a big universe out there and we are a part of it. We are responsible for writing the history of humanity. We can blow it [Earth] up or find a way to deal with our one home... the more we feel that there’s a stake in the outcome of the world, the more we can focus on figuring out how we can sustain a healthy planet. I mean, there’s been some announcements recently about finding planets similar to Earth several light-years away but I’m not interested in them, I’m more interested in investing in our planet,” Ma said.

He added: “We all lead busy lives but we need to make sure that we are working for something bigger than ourselves. That could be our family, community, country, sector (work)... at the end of the day, there’s over seven billion of us, and approximately half are under 27 years of age. We need to make sure they have legitimate hope for the future so we can all enjoy more meaningful lives.”

One way Ma and the ensemble are addressing that is through specially-tailored programmes aimed at younger generations of musicians. Silkroad is a global initiative that collaborates with schools, teachers and artists to explore the roles that passion and art can play in learning. Moreover, each summer Silkroad and the Harvard Graduate School of Education organises the Arts and Passion-Driven Learning Institute, a professional development programme for teachers.

“We actively seek out younger generations through different initiatives such as workshops for [pupils] in their late teens. I’d love to set up a similar programme in the Middle East. We just completed a successful one in China and we are going to Mexico next. Talent is everywhere, we hope that we can give opportunities for people who are trying to tap into their potential,” he said.

The Silk Road Ensemble is similarly active in building on its constant evolution since its establishment 17 years ago.

“To be honest, at my late age, my proudest achievement is discovering [talented individuals] and seeing them succeed. It’s my dream come true,” he said.

Ma added: “We have had some great opportunities to meet people and expand our collective experiences. As a result, the group’s growing bigger without growing in size. Our shared values are constantly growing, which I think is one of the best parts of being in the ensemble. We are constantly learning, refining our knowledge and discovering ways to add new layers to our creations.”

In addition, he highlighted various aspects of the group that he’s most proud of: “Everyone’s constant professional development and how more and more people are becoming more socially conscious and looking for ways to address what’s currently happening. For example, Hadi [Eldebek], an oud player, is also an engineer and he’s trying to develop a number of sites to help artists connect from around the world.”

Another thing Ma reflected on was the various collaborations the ensemble participated in such as their recent one with the Mark Morris Dance Company where they breathed new life into the classic Persian love story, Layla and Majnoun, which was previously turned into a 1908 opera by the Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov.

“I’m proud of our co-collaboration with the Mark Morris Dance Company on Layla and Majnoun. We are bringing this iconic love story and telling people: hey, check this out, it’s the equivalent of Romeo and Juliet. It’s amazing how there’s so many similarities within our cultures, which joins people together, but [unfortunately], humans prefer to focus on [what makes us different]. Humanity has a lot in common, so my ultimate joy would be to have a world that values itself,” he said.

The ensemble’s founder also floated the possibility of a special collaboration with Gulf musicians.

“I’d love to have Gulf musicians in the ensemble or possibly create a special group for them within the ensemble... it’s been a dream of mine for many years. The problem is that the ensemble relies on donations so each year we organise fundraisers to raise the money we need to stay afloat. But it would be incredibly exciting for us to do that, it would be great to meet people who are curious about the world and have great passion for their countries and cultural expressions,” he said.

Ma further revealed his passion for uniting cultures and promoting healing through music by referencing a concert he recently performed in Germany with Kinan Azmeh, the ensemble’s Syrian clarinetist.

“Kinan and I played in Hamburg and brought together Syrian and German musicians. It was an amazing experience, the entire audience went absolutely crazy. So on one hand, we are constantly getting negative news but on the other, we had an audience of 2,000 people enjoying our music and once they went back to their normal lives, [I’d like to think] that they now have this memory that we are seamless, unified as human beings,” he said.

“What I legitimately hope for is that we continue to find ways to come together. The values of creating something together, mutual cooperation and working with people from different points of view — that’s important in order to create something that’s mutually beneficial for all. It’s not necessarily about economic benefits but benefits in terms of doing something meaningful, something that’s right and spiritually enhancing,” he said.

He added: “Music plays a part in people’s memories and it alters the way they perceive things. It can show a different side to the reality that’s presented to us, which can be very motivational as [an] ensemble we try to do as much as we can to address humanitarian issues like the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and migration issues. We try our best through culture to normalise a situation that’s clearly not normal or natural.”

Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.