Ibulliance: Listening to the Light

I sat in a packed concert hall at the Spoleto Festival last week as Yo-Yo Ma entered the stage, cello high in one hand and a bow in the other, his face beaming with light that could torch the night sky. He came bringing news from the world, having returned from a journey that spanned five years and six continents, weaving disparate cultures into a euphony of sound.


One of the most celebrated musicians on the planet, Yo-Yo chose to play his cello on that journey not only in iconic music halls of Europe but in subways in Medellín, refugee camps in Kenya, in a traditional voyager canoe around the Hawaiian islands.


In a Medina in Tunisia, he bought together silk weavers, shoemakers, and book binders to talk about why our creative heritage is essential for building hope.  


In Jakarta, he joined a women's cooperative to learn the secrets of batik, how a slow design heritage can help us counter the devastation of fast fashion.


In West Virginia, he sat with coal miners over their lunch pails. In Xi'an, he celebrated the Chinese Autumn Moon Festival. In Leipzig, he harmonized with an ensemble of immigrants from eleven countries.


He played at the wide open Acropolis in Athens and in a small classroom with young students in Vienna. He joined a festive Pachanga on either side of the Rio Grande—in Mexico and Texas, both—celebrating the spirit of both sides who consider themselves one.

And though he played to enthusiastic crowds in every city, the more important work of this journey, the reason he went in the first place, he said, quite humbly, was to listen. Music, arts, and culture must serve the world, so he believes, and make of it a better place. Yearning to find out how this might be, Yo-Yo reached out to any who would join him in that yearning.

To the stage, he brought the Queen of African Music, Angelique Kidjo, her voice as prismatic as the head wrap furling from her face. And Jeremy Dutcher of the Tobique First Nation in Canada, voice coursing in earth sounds from the deep—just two of the friends he met in his five year #bachproject.


When I visited a community, I listened to their music of gratitude and hope, said Yo-Yo, performing an astonishingly raw rendition of an indigenous greeting he learned. And then, in response, I played this. He sat down and let his fingers flow over the strings to Bach's Cello Suite #1, a river of joy. I wept. I suspect all of us in that enormous hall wept, for the joy of a man who chooses not to hold his celebrity tightly to himself but to make of it a platform, wide as the world, for other's stories to be sung and told.


He spoke of music, but sitting in my quiet puddle of dark, I thought he could just as well be speaking of craft, of cloth, those other languages of heritage and hope. Even in his vast acclaim, he sought, above all, to learn from artistries wildly different from his own, and to celebrate their makers, all serving the beating, distressed, heart of this planet. Listen! he said. The earth and her people are yearning toward a new world. We must listen to one another, and  in our listening, learn, and in our learning, create a better world together.

As the global musicians wove sounds together on the stage—First Nations rippling water intonations with European scores and African riffs with Gullah echos—I sat with the whole world. I listened to the light.


And as I filled with that brilliant cacophony of color and sound, I longed, also, to serve this joy. To work in this hope. It was an invitation to all of us. To become one infinitesimal beam in these many prisms of light.


All the best,