Saturday, November 7, 2009

Of Yo-Yo Ma, Oprah and Music

Oprah's Season 24 Kickoff Party show reminded me of a story Yo-Yo Ma told on Tavis Smiley a year ago. Tavis Smiley had asked him to describe one of the defining moments that put him on the path to being the international icon that he has become. Here is Yo-Yo Ma’s answer in his own words:

When I was in college, ... I took a course in anthropology where I studied and saw films of the bushmen of the Kalahari desert. And so they live now mainly in Botswana and Namibia.

And there was a blind musician, and the film that I saw was called "Bitter Melons." And a blind musician that played and sang, and played on an instrument that I'd ever seen before, but it was so magical that I was 19 and one of the things that you do when you're 19 is you think "What am I going to do with my life? What are the 10 things I want to do?"

That was one of the things I wanted to do. And for some reason -- and I feel very blessed because of that -- I had the opportunity to go there 15 years later and did a documentary on the trance dance and music practices in 12 villages in Namibia. And at the end of the trip, they did a trance dance. And I asked --where you basically go into, well, a trance, and people who go into trance after hours of singing and dancing, there's a laying on of hands.

And I saw something that was so -- it was about religion, it was about medicine, it was about society. Everybody participated, and anybody who came from neighboring villages who needed it also were helped. And the next day, I interviewed the ladies that were clapping the hands, sitting down, and chanting. I said, "Why do you do that?"

And their reply is the best answer for culture I've ever heard "Because it gives us meaning." And that is something -- and so for the bushmen, that was their most complex ritual. It was as complex, as meaningful, as transcendent as Beethoven or Bruckner or Stravinsky, because this is what -- they gave all of what they had for the meaning that they get back. And that's what motivated me ever since.

Watching thousands people on Oprah participating on the flash mob dance had the same magical effect. One of the participants described the experience as “Joy rising.” For a period of time, it seemed that music joined us together—devoted fans, performers, and spectators alike; it felt like it transported us together into another space, made us appreciate its beauty and gave us a different perspective on life, a slightly richer perspective. When the history-making dance or musical trance ended, it seemed like we were a bit fuller, better...