Every day is a holiday for Yo-Yo Ma

11.14.08
Yo-Yo Ma
CNN

NEW YORK (CNN) -- When Yo-Yo Ma enters a room, everything changes.

His energy and warmth (he hugs everyone in sight) and curiosity (for every question you ask him, he asks two of you) envelop you like a blanket. He's also surprisingly funny.

The world's most celebrated cellist introduces himself not as Yo-Yo, or Mr. Ma, or even Yo Mama (as you might expect from a wisenheimer). Instead, with a hint of mischief and a nod to the everyman celebrity of campaign '08, he offers, "I'm Joe the cellist."

He adds, "I get the 'plumb' jobs."

He might be right. Consider Ma's latest album, "Songs of Joy and Peace" (Sony), the first holiday-themed release of his career. Ma describes it as a musical party, a collection of good-time collaborations with musical buddies, James Taylor and Diana Krall among them.

"I asked everybody to bring their favorite piece of music that signified joy to them," Ma said. "And out came all of these fantastic pieces. Many of them I didn't know."

Krall applies her mellow voice and piano playing to the lighthearted "You Couldn't be Cuter." Ma joined Taylor in Taylor's Washington, Massachusetts, barn to record George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." Other guests include vocalists Alison Krauss and Renee Fleming, trumpeter Chris Botti and saxophonist Joshua Redman.

Ma also enlists help from friends who are less mainstream such as the green-haired Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato and mandolin player Chris Thiele. Jake Shimabukuro's ukulele provides a delightfully plucky counterpoint to Ma's soaring cello on the John Lennon/Yoko Ono hit "Happy Xmas (War is Over)."

Born in Paris to Chinese parents and raised in New York, Ma, 53, is no stranger to thinking outside the music box. In 1998 he founded the Silk Road Project, a multi-cultural exchange designed to help artists and musicians share ideas across borders. His international efforts have earned him the title of United Nations Messenger of Peace.

And to Ma, his extensive travels have earned him comparison to a certain shifty-footed children's book character.

"As a musician I'm kind of nomadic, Waldo-like," he says. "I show up in different places, and I'm witness to unbelievable things."

CNN caught up with Ma at Legacy Studios in New York where some of the recording took place for "Songs of Joy and Peace." The following is an edited version of that interview.

CNN: One of the things that's apparent from watching the footage of the studio sessions from this album is that everyone is so humbled to work with you, and you are just as humbled to work with them.

Yo-Yo Ma: Well, I think what I loved about the sessions was that there was mutuality, if that's a word, of just being open and wanting to do the best thing possible. And so I think everybody just came with an open heart and open mind. ... The amount of talent that walked through the room was staggering for me. Day after day I thought I could die and go to heaven. ... Every day was like that. So I feel very, very, very lucky and very grateful to my friends.

CNN: With the work you do, particularly with the Silk Road Project, you've really had to relax the rules of classical music. Has that been difficult?

Ma: There's a part of me that's always charging ahead. I'm the curious kid, always going to the edge. But I have such deep love for the domain that I come from, whether you call it classical music or ... I don't know what you call it these days because it's no longer really definable. It's coming from a lot of places.

Yes, you're right, I had to relax. It was scary. And I think the idea of transcending fear and transcending technique or understanding different frames is part of the adventure. Something's scary until you make it familiar and comfortable. I feel so much more a member of the planet community after doing this work for 10 years, because I feel like you can drop me most places and I'll be OK. I'll find out what's going on and find a way to participate.

CNN: You're a big believer in the idea that music is this big unifying force in the world. What other common languages have you come across?

Ma: Oh my goodness. I think there are so many basic ways of behaving that we all have. Guest-host relations ... there's no culture that doesn't have that. And there's almost no culture where there are not stories where people take in strangers. Gift giving is another act that is universal. Certainly caring for one's group, a tribal mentality. Sometimes it means putting up firewalls because it's dangerous to mingle.

But in today's world it seems like we have different groupings. [We seem to have] a younger generation that actually is much more tribe-blind or they've created their own social communities.

So it's interesting to live in today's world and observe how within urban or rural areas people's habits may be changing. And I think culturally speaking I'm trying to work in such a way that we can actually find more commonality than the differences, especially because often things happen so quickly.

CNN: Can you ever remember a moment in your life when you felt bored?

Ma: Yes. I hated that feeling so much. I think we all remember when we were much younger, how slowly time [goes]. And I think those years often were very boring years. When is summer going to come? When is Christmas going to come? Never!

But I think I decided or thought about how I really would love to have an interesting life. I really would like to be involved in things and to understand things, and in some ways you've got to be careful what you wish for because I feel very, very blessed to have such an interesting life and to be able to have little snapshots of lives of people from many different parts of the world.

CNN: What do you do to relax?

Ma: Because so much of what I do involves people, being in a place with more trees than people immediately takes me down. I live in Cambridge [Massachusetts] and so when we go to western Massachusetts and see the mountains and trees, suddenly I'm totally relaxed and feel fabulous.