Today's date:
Spring 2008

Paths of Globalization: From the Berbers to Bach

Yo-Yo Ma is one of the world's most renowned cellists. This article is based on a talk he gave at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

Davos -- Over the past 30 years as a professional cellist, I have spent the equivalent of two full decades on the road, both performing and learning about musical traditions and cultures. My travels have convinced me that in our globalized world, cultural traditions form an essential framework for identity, social stability and compassionate interaction.

A world changing so quickly as ours is bound to create cultural insecurity, to make people question their place. Globalization so often seems to threaten the identity of the individual, by subjecting us to someone else's rules. That naturally makes us nervous, since these rules ask us to change our time-honored habits. So the critical question for today's global leaders is: How can habits and cultures evolve to join a bigger planet, without sacrificing distinct identities and individual pride?

My musical journeys have reminded me that the interactions brought about by globalization don't just destroy culture; they can create new culture and invigorate and spread traditions that have existed for ages. It's not unlike the ecological term "edge effect," which is used to describe what happens when two different ecosystems meet, for example, the forest and savannah. At that interface, where there is the least density and the greatest diversity of life forms, each living thing can draw from the core of the two ecosystems. Sometimes the most interesting things happen at the edge. The intersections there can reveal unexpected connections.

Culture is a fabric composed of gifts from every corner of the world. One way of discovering the world is by digging deeply into its traditions. In music, for instance, at the core of any cellist's repertoire are the Cello Suites by Bach. At the heart of each suite is a dance movement called the sarabande. The dance originated with music of the North African Berbers, where it was a slow, sensual dance. It next appeared in Spain, where it was banned because it was considered lewd and lascivious. Spaniards brought it to the Americas, but it also traveled on to France, where it became a courtly dance. In the 1720s, Bach incorporated the sarabande as a movement in his Cello Suites. Today, I play Bach, a Paris-born American musician of Chinese parentage. So who really owns the sarabande? Each culture has adopted the music, investing it with specific meaning, but each culture must share ownership: it belongs to us all.

In 1998, I founded the Silk Road Project to study the flow of ideas among the many cultures between the Mediterranean and the Pacific over several thousand years. When the Silk Road Ensemble performs, we try to bring much of the world together on one stage. Its members are a peer group of virtuosos, masters of living traditions, whether European, Arabic, Azeri, Armenian, Persian, Russian, Central Asian, Indian, Mongolian, Chinese, Korean or Japanese. They all generously share their knowledge and are curious and eager to learn about other forms of expression.

Over the last several years, we have found that every tradition is the result of successful invention. One of the best ways to ensure the survival of traditions is by organic evolution, using all the tools available to us in the present day. Through recording and film; through residencies in museums, universities, design schools and cities; through performances from classroom to stadium, ensemble musicians, including myself, are learning valuable skills. Returning home, we share these skills with others, ensuring that our traditions will have a seat at the cultural table.

We have found that performing a tradition abroad energizes the practitioners in the home country. Most of all, we have developed a passion for each others' music and developed a bond of mutual respect, friendship and trust that is palpable every time we're on stage. This joyous interaction is such a desirable common greater goal that we have always been able to resolve any differences through amicable dialogue. As we open up to each other, we form a bridge into unfamiliar traditions, banishing the fear that often accompanies change and dislocation. In other words, when we broaden our lens on the world, we better understand ourselves, our own lives and culture. We share more in common with the far reaches of our small planet than we realize.

Finding these shared cultures is important, but not just for art's sake. So many of our cities -- not just London, New York or Tokyo, but now even the mid-sized cities -- are experiencing waves of immigration. How will we assimilate groups of people with their own unique habits? Must immigration inevitably lead to resistance and conflict, as it has in the past? What about the Turkish population in Germany, Albanians in Italy, North Africans in Spain and France? A thriving cultural engine can help us figure out how groups can peacefully meld, without sacrificing individuality and identity. This is not about political correctness. It's about acknowledging what is precious to someone, and the gifts that every culture has given to our world.

WHAT KIND OF EDUCATION FOR WHAT KIND OF WORLD? | What kind of education will prepare a student to live on such a planet? What tools do people need to become architects of their own lives? In a highly competitive hierarchical world driven by tests and measurable results, I would like to propose four priorities for education that are hard to measure and easy to ignore, yet they are vitally important and within reach for all of us.

My conclusions are drawn from my work as a musician, and my first priority is based in a common goal that musicians and teachers share: to make the communication of their content memorable. By memorable, I mean the listeners or students become transported by their experience of the music or subject. The content, then, remains active and accessible in their minds and can grow and connect to future experiences. Our stories will be different, but I'm sure that each of us can recall a teacher whose inspiration transformed our lives.

Content that is memorable becomes a key ingredient in the second priority, passion-driven education. Education driven by passion awakens us to a world bigger than ourselves and makes us curious. Learning becomes self-sustaining as it transforms from a requirement to a desire. Students who are passionate are a pleasure to teach, and teachers who are passionate share their knowledge generously. In fact, teaching becomes learning and vice versa. Passion-driven education liberates students and gives them the self-confidence to discover who they are as individuals and how they fit in the world.

The next priority is the development of a disciplined imagination. Imagination draws on all of our intelligences, senses, experiences and intuition to construct possible scenarios. Through imagination, we are able to transcend our present local reality and envision distant futures. It allows us to think not only about the tools people need today, but about the tools our children will need to contribute to the world they will share. Imagination is the great engine that powers the arts and sciences, and it is an available resource for all to use.

Disciplined imagination leads me to the final priority: empathy. To be able to put oneself in another's shoes without prejudgment is an essential skill. Empathy comes when you understand something deeply and can thus make unexpected connections. These parallels bring you closer to things that would otherwise seem far away. In our world of specialization, compartmentalization and myriad responsibilities, empathy is the ultimate quality that acknowledges our identity as members of the human family.

In our complex world, it is crucial that educators have the tools to help students understand not only their own lives but also the broadest possible horizons. An education that incorporates the four priorities of making the subject memorable, inspiring passion-driven learning, developing a disciplined imagination and fostering empathy will result in citizens who are active participants in shaping a future of which we can all be proud.