The pandemic has kept most of us holed up at home and seeking out the things in life that soothe us. For some, it's baking bread or getting a pet; for others it's taking a long walk. For world renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma, it's playing his cello.
Ma has spent a lot more time than usual at his home in Cambridge. Early in the pandemic, he found a way to use his music to soothe himself and others. He tweeted out videos of himself playing some of his favorite pieces.
In turn, musicians around the world posted their own work, with Ma's hashtag #SongsOfComfort.
This sparked the idea for his latest album.
Yo-Yo Ma teamed up with a longtime friend, British pianist Kathryn Stott, on a collection they've called "Songs of Comfort and Hope." The album was released Friday. Ma spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins about it.
Yo-Yo Ma: What we really wanted to do was to take songs that are probably deeply meaningful to different peoples around the world, since this is a worldwide pandemic, and how do we actually address what people feel deeply all over the world.
Lisa Mullins: [One of the songs you recorded is a] traditional song that many people will recognize from Simon and Garfunkel, but it has deeper roots than that: "Scarborough Fair." ... I wonder if the comfort in this song is the familiarity of it. What do you find in it?
We wanted to choose songs that people know and love from different places and from different times. You know, "Scarborough Fair" is a traditional English folk song, but Kathy [Stott] had this great idea. She said... maybe we could also find really interesting arrangers to do it so that we could actually have a different sound... And that's one way of kind of making these songs different, special and contemporary.
Do you find comfort in the song, in your own kind of history?
Absolutely. The thing is, [we can play almost none of these songs] without getting very misty-eyed. I mean, there's one reason why these songs have lasted so long and mean so much to people.
The Antonin Dvorak movement – from his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" – [was later given lyrics and named] "Goin' Home." People may be surprised that it's a Dvorak song. He wrote it not long after he arrived in America in 1893 from what is now the Czech Republic... When you listen to that now, what goes through your mind?
Oh, my goodness, so much, because I think Dvorak was more than a composer. He was also a teacher. And the lyrics and the song "Goin' Home" was actually written by his student, William Arms Fisher. Dvorak taught for a couple of years at the National Conservatory of Music [of America]. He taught his students, 'Don't compose like me, but listen; listen to what's around you.' His students heard him and then taught in the same way. And as a result, we have some of the most distinct original voices that are American voices, but so diverse, as is the country.
It's wonderful to think in terms of the lyrics Dvorak did not write: 'Goin' home, goin' home, I'm a goin' home. Quiet-like, still some day, I'm just goin' home.' And of course when you think about the pandemic, many of us consider ourselves sort of stuck at home if we're lucky enough to have a home. Yet the sentiment of longing is the common thread in many of these pieces. When you're playing them, where does that sentiment come from in you? I'm imagining that your life is a lot different right now than it has been ever before, certainly in your performing career, because are you pretty much staying in one place?
I am. And what's amazing is that literally, for the first time in my life – certainly in the last 45 years – I'm actually feeling what people who lead a regular life do. Because my life has been anything but regular. And suddenly, I actually cherish the idea of weekends. You know, I actually go to the office, like 9 to 5 Monday through Fridays. And I can't wait for the weekend sometimes – and dread Monday... But in terms of home, I think we all have so many different versions of home, whether it's the home where we were born, and whether it's memories of home, memories of a landscape, of foods, of smells, of scents. And then, of course, we're a country where people move. So home is much larger than a place or even our own memories.
You have a song, "Thula Baba." It's an African lullaby. We may not be familiar with this, but it's sung by a lot of choruses around the world. The lyrics are, 'Hush, hush little baby. Daddy will be back in the morning. There's a star that will draw him home.' What drew you to this song?
Kathy Stott, once again, knew this song, and she played it for one of her students who's from South Africa. And that student started crying and said, 'You know, this so reminds me of my childhood because that's a song that we sang all the time.' And it's a Zulu lullaby. And so coming home guided by the star is actually knowledge that the Zulus and also indigenous people have. They don't get lost because they read the skies... There's something else that Kathy and I hope: that the music will kind of reach deep within people's psyches and memories to honor the people who are doing incredibly hard work and the people who have lost others, and kind of recapture the sense of caring that we have for one another.
I think in terms of rebuilding and recapturing in a sense of kind of restoration, [your album features this song that] is really lovely. You did it in a jaunty, jazzy way. "We'll Meet Again" – a song recorded by Vera Lynn, a British singer, in 1939... And she sang it with a sense of heartbreak and hope. And you and Kathryn... take a different approach. Playing that, did you feel like you are bringing us to the next chapter, to the point when we can meet again?
I think one of the things we thought about is that this song was played during the separation of loved ones during the war, during [World War II]. And so many of these songs deal with that kind of separation. We hope we'll meet again. There's the hope, but there's also the... possibility that we won't meet again. We did want to end the album on a hopeful note, but it's also a poignant note.
This segment aired on December 11, 2020.