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

The musicians on <em>Not Our First Goat Rodeo</em>, from left to right: Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer.
The musicians on <em>Not Our First Goat Rodeo</em>, from left to right: Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer.

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

"I do believe that everything that we do," he says, "people in every profession — medical workers, the delivery people, the politicians — we all are there to serve. We only exist because someone has a need. I know that music fulfills that kind of need."

Ma is also releasing new music. Along with Americana musicians Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, Not Our First Goat Rodeois a follow-up album to the group's first project nine years ago.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly spoke to Yo-Yo Ma about getting the band back together nine years after its debut album, playing music to help get through the coronavirus pandemic and what a more racially just classical music world might look like. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On the decision to reunite with The Goat Rodeo Sessions group

We had that idea while we were working on the first Goat Rodeo because the chemistry was so wonderful between the four of us. We thought this was time to put another set of ideas down to mark a certain kind of progression.

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.

On his "Songs of Comfort" video project

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

One of my heroes was Leonard Bernstein, who said when JFK was killed: "This is our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

On whether there will be a return to the concert hall

"Getting back" to something, for me, is not so much getting back to the concert hall but to get back to values. 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 of doing live drive-in events. And drive-ins are actually part of our culture. Cars are some of the best PPEs [personal protective equipment] that we have.

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."

On making more space in the classical world for black musicians

There was a conversation hosted where the head of an organization called Sphinx — which supports young black and brown musicians, who have been working for the last 20, 30 years — and the result of that was saying that "we've got the goods, we've got the talent" and it's now a moment of action. I think this is a moment where, yes, black lives do matter, but black lives in everyprofession matter. And we're not too busy to do that.

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