Yo-Yo Ma: ‘Culture Builds Bridges, Not Walls’

For all of his serious flaws, Andrew Breitbart got one thing right. He is the one credited with the observation that “politics is downstream from culture.” That might help explain why Pete Buttigieg’s focus on values is gaining more traction than Elizabeth Warren’s voluminous policy proposals. Donald Trump, as the embodiment of what the Republican Party has become, plunged America into a serious debate about who we are as a country and what we hold in common. Answering those questions has moved to the forefront of the conversation.

Against that backdrop, I was struck by this story about cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his Bach Project to the sister cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on Saturday. The “Day of Action” featured performances in both cities to celebrate the relationship between the two communities.

Ma played the opening notes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello in a park next to the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, one of the crossings that connect the U.S. and Mexican cities…

“As you all know, as you did and do and will do, in culture, we build bridges, not walls,” he said. After his performance, he gestured to the bridge to his right. “I’ve lived my life at the borders. Between cultures. Between disciplines. Between musics. Between generations.”

Yo-Yo Ma went right to the heart of the battle this president is waging on the border and packed a lot of wisdom into the statements he made. In case you’re not familiar with the way he has lived his own life at the borders, there are numerous examples, like that time he joined Carlos Santana and India Arie to cover a song written by George Harrison. But this might be my favorite:

When Ma played Bach on his cello at the heart of the battle on the border, I was reminded of a true story that was memorialized in the book by George Galloway titled, The Cellist of Sarajevo.

At four o’clock in the afternoon of May 17, 1992, during the Siege of Sarajevo, several mortar shells struck a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina. Twenty-two people were killed and at least seventy were wounded. For the next twenty-two days Vedran Smailovic, a renonwned local cellist, played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor at the site in honor of the dead. His actions inspired this novel.

One of the characters in Galloway’s novel is a woman who’s pseudonym during the siege is “Arrow” because she is hired by the government forces as a sniper to fire back at the enemy in the hills conducting the siege. She explains that she has adopted the pseudonym while she does this in order to draw a definitive line between the person she was before and the person she has become in hopes that someday she can return. Over the course of the siege, Arrow learns what it means to hate, and so she struggles with the performance of the cellist.

Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills, the men in the city, herself, none of them had the right to do the things they’d done. It had never happened. It could not have happened. But she knew these notes. They had become a part of her. They told her that everything had happened exactly as she knew it had, and that nothing could be done about it. No grief or rage or noble act could undo it. But it could all have been stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn’t have to be murderers. The men in the city didn’t have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

People like Yo-Yo Ma and Vedran Smailovic make it harder for us to hate because the bridges they build with their music demonstrate that the world still holds the capacity for goodness.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.