Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Plays Bach In Shadow Of Border Crossing

Apr 13, 2019
Originally published on April 30, 2019 2:26 pm

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.

The Laredo performance took place on an elevated stage before an audience of officials and onlookers. Concerns over possible rain disappeared as Ma began to play in the morning sunshine.

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It was part of his Bach Project, which uses the composer's 300-year-old music to explore connections between cultures. The project has taken Ma all over the world. On Friday it brought him to Laurie Auditorium at Trinity University in San Antonio, and on Saturday it brought him to Laredo, within a few feet of the Rio Grande.

"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."

Mateo Bailey, 16, lives in San Antonio. He grew up in El Paso, plays the cello and is the son of Grammy Award-winning cellist Zuill Bailey.

He felt Ma's performance had special significance "because this event is on the border. And I'm half-Mexican as well as half-American ... and for him to connect cello with what's happening in the world is like, it's a cultural bridge that was just built, and it's amazing."

Betty DeLeon praised the cellist for visiting. "It speaks of him. What a wonderful human being to take his time and come to our tiny little town to share the importance of culture. On the border. It's amazing. It's a privilege to be a part of this."

Pete Saenz, mayor of Laredo, said that despite the river and despite the bridge spanning overhead, the border is one community.

"And although people may perceive us as being so different, we're not," he said. "Here the border is extremely unique in that it's one organism. I've always said we're interdependent, interconnected. We survived because the border side survives, especially here on the border area."

This Day of Action also included a performance in Plaza Juarez in Nuevo Laredo, a few blocks from the international crossing. Its overall theme was an appreciation for the connections between the two cities, which see themselves as one community.

Ma was originally scheduled to play on the actual bridge, which would have been briefly closed. The planned closure would have been a collaborative effort between officials and residents on both sides of the border. But the traffic and pedestrian delays that the performance would have caused convinced officials to move the locale to the Tres Laredos Park right next to the bridge.

The famous cellist has studied and performed the German composer's music for six decades.

In 2018, Ma set out on a two-year journey to perform Bach's six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world. He believes the music has an ability to connect cultures and humanity from all walks of life. He said that this is what motivated him to launch the project.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Near a southern border crossing today in Laredo, Texas, where the wait to cross into Mexico can take hours, something different could be heard above the crowds. Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed, saying he wanted music to set the tone there, not politics. Texas Public Radio's Norma Martinez reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YO-YO MA: (Playing cello).

NORMA MARTINEZ, BYLINE: On a sunny, hazy, humid morning, cellist Yo-Yo Ma played the opening notes of J.S. Bach's "Suite No. 1 For Unaccompanied Cello" just feet from the river that separates Laredo, Texas, from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It's part of Ma's Bach project, taking Bach's music to 36 locations around the world to explore connections between cultures. Moore was originally scheduled to perform on the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, but the wait times to cross the bridge are hours long because hundreds of border agents have been temporarily redirected away from the ports of entry. Ma chose to perform at Tres Laredos Park a stone's throw from the bridge that links the two nations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MA: I've lived my life at the borders between cultures, between disciplines, between musics, between generations.

MARTINEZ: Ma addressed the crowd after his performance. He gestured to the bridge to his right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MA: As you all know, as you did and do and will do, in culture, we build bridges - not walls.

(CHEERING)

MARTINEZ: Sixteen-year-old Mateo Bailey lives in San Antonio. He grew up in El Paso, plays the cello and is the son of Grammy award-winning cellist Zuill Bailey. He felt Ma's performance had special significance.

MATEO BAILEY: Because it's on the border, and I'm half Mexican as well as half American. And for him to connect both cultures like this is really special because I've grown up with the cello. And for him to connect cello with what's really happening in the world is - like, it's a cultural bridge that - which is built, and it's just amazing.

MARTINEZ: Pete Saenz, mayor of Laredo, said despite the river, despite the bridge spanning overhead, the border is one community.

PETE SAENZ: And although people may perceive us as being so different, we're not. Here at the border is extremely unique in that it's one organism. I've always said, you know, we're interdependent, interconnected.

MARTINEZ: And that's the type of interconnection Ma is highlighting with his two-year-long Bach Project.

MA: I love these two cities. I felt I was so welcomed into really their spaces. It's left an indelible mark in my memory.

MARTINEZ: For NPR News, I'm Norma Martinez in Laredo, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MA: (Playing cello). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.