Yo-Yo Ma, the much-loved and respected American cellist, and whose name rolls off the tongue with the same playfulness as some of his riffs, feels music has acquired almost a physical dimension in the absence of social contact during the pandemic.
“What the pandemic has crystallised in my mind is that we need music because it helps us to get to very specific states of mind,” Ma said in an interview in The New York Times. “Everybody wants to get to certain states of mind during the day, during the cycle of the season. And during a pandemic, with the alienation of not having social contact, music is also that physical force.”
India has felt the magic of Ma’s music. The 65-year-old performed at the NCPA in Mumbai in January 2019. The next evening, he gave a free, impromptu performance on Marine Drive, playing Bach’s suite No.1 to a bemused audience of walkers and bench-sitters, many of whom had no idea they were watching one of the world’s great artistes in action.
In his interview, Ma suggested that during the pandemic, music has shouldered the dual responsibility of providing hope as well as marking a tragic event, such as a funeral.
“Certain smells can get to an immediate childhood memory of your grandmother’s baking apple pie. Music can do the same thing,” he said. "Your first kiss. Your wedding. And unfortunately, during this time, we’ve lost a number of friends, and you have virtual memorial services and you play music for that. All of which is to say that you do whatever is needed with music. We need music to make us feel at equilibrium through hard times and good times.”
Ma also spoke about dealing with racist questions in Europe in his younger days. Now that Asians have gained acceptance in the world of classical music, it needed to be more comfortable for black musicians, Ma said.
“When I started playing concerts on a regular basis in my early 20s, in Europe the most often asked question was, ‘How can an Oriental like you understand music?’,” Ma said. “That was a bit of this stereotype of the Asian with a slide rule. Being a musician at that time was an anomaly. Now the numbers of Asians in orchestras, it’s fairly large. [But] Now people are talking about, ‘How does it feel to be one of very few African-Americans in a major orchestra?’ Anthony McGill (principal clarinettist, the New York Philharmonic) is now being featured. He’s a great artist. He is such a beautiful soul. There are fabulous African-American musicians, but I think the environment needs to be more comfortable.”
Just as it was for Ma in Mumbai.