Why Yo-Yo Ma thinks culture and music can help protect the planet
The cello virtuoso has been playing Bach concerts on six continents. At every stop, he joins activities to support social justice and environmental causes.
By Claudia Kalb
On a sunlit February morning in Cape Town, Ross Frylinck waited near the doorway of a private home perched on a steep mountainside overlooking False Bay. Co-founder of the Sea Change Project, an environmental organization dedicated to preserving the kelp forest in South Africa’s coastal waters, Frylinck had gathered with a group of colleagues and musicians to welcome Yo-Yo Ma to Cape Town, one of 36 stops on the cellist’s six-continent tour known as the Bach Project.
Preparing to receive one of the world’s most celebrated musicians caused some trepidation. “We were all a bit intimidated,” Frylinck said later. But the tension dissipated as soon as Ma arrived. The cellist’s face was open and warm, and his demeanour caring, earnest, and inquisitive. “His whole heart was smiling in the room,” Frylinck said.
Inside the small wood and stone dwelling, Frylinck and Sea Change co-founder Craig Foster told Ma about their campaign to protect what they call the Great African Seaforest, a swaying jungle of giant kelp that Frylinck likens to an untouched Amazon rainforest, with dense canopies of plants and flocks of fish that fly like birds through the currents. The activists showed Ma the percussion and other musical instruments that their team created from materials that washed up on the beach on Cape Town’s coast: shakers made from shark egg cases, a stringed instrument made from abalone shell, a drum made from a humpback whale ear bone. And they introduced Ma to South African singer Zolani Mahola, who had helped the group bring together instruments, music, and lyrics to fashion their sea-forest anthem.
As Ma listened, Mahola and a group of Sea Change musicians and collaborators staged their first performance of “My Amphibious Soul,” the melodic narrative they had culled and shaped from the waters. Ma was transfixed by the sounds, new to his ear, and the players’ inventiveness. “They made what we couldn’t see, feel, and hear—they made it visible and audible and tactile,” he told me later. The composition gave the Great African Seaforest a voice, and an enthusiastic devotee in Ma.
Then it was the cellist’s turn. He took a seat outdoors, on a mountainside deck trimmed with driftwood. As whitecaps danced atop waves below and Cape Town’s mountains stood tall on the horizon, Ma played one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. The setting and the eloquence of Ma’s performance stirred his listeners. So did the essence of the musician—an exuberance that turns horsehair and wood into rapture.
Frylinck told me later that in the course of his lifetime, he had encountered only two other people who struck him as Ma did: a monk at a temple in Japan and legendary leader Nelson Mandela. “For me, Yo-Yo Ma had that quality of basic goodness,” Frylinck said. “I just had this feeling that this man is a bodhisattva”—a compassionate figure who helps others attain enlightenment.
Ma clearly is a man of action. Before leaving Cape Town, he agreed to become a patron of the Sea Change Project. Months later, he posted about his visit on social media, created a video in support of Sea Change’s work, and when interviewed, made a point of talking about the need to protect the kelp forest. Last fall the cellist invited Mahola and Sea Change musicians to join him in a virtual concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations. Ma, a UN Messenger of Peace, featured “My Amphibious Soul” in his repertoire, along with works by Antonín Dvořák and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Since the intimate gathering with Ma in Cape Town, the Sea Change Project has been elevated from local advocacy circles onto the global stage. “It was a total wake-up moment for me personally, because our mission is to win hearts and minds for the benefit of the ocean,” Frylinck says. “How do you do that? You connect with people who already have won hearts and minds and are naturally aligned with your conservation work and want to do good and be part of it.” Ma’s patronage, he adds, was the missing link that Sea Change needed. “It opened so many doors that would never otherwise be opened.”