Yo-Yo Ma Joins Panelists for a Discussion of Cultural Citizenship
“The cultural aspect of citizenship has often been muted,” said Professor Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, at a symposium called “Cultural Citizenship” on Saturday. Bhabha spoke as part of a panel moderated by Diana Sorensen, Dean of Arts and Sciences. The panel also included lecturer on law Jacqueline Bhabha, lecturer on law, Yo-Yo Ma ’76, the Silk Road Ensemble artistic director; and Colin Jacobsen and Cristina Pato, both members of musical performance group, the Silk Road Ensemble. The symposium, a joint presentation by the Mahindra Humanities Center and the Silk Road Project, explored the idea of a culturally based definition of identity and the idea of cultural diffusion through the lenses of current events and music.
The members of the Silk Road Ensemble, many of whom are immigrants, are known for bringing together musical influences from many cultural backgrounds. Opening the event with Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor—a piece that was inspired by traditional Roma music—performed by Ma, violinist Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, and guest pianist Tania Rivers-Moore ’15, the group touched upon the influence that the music of the Roma had on classical composition. The group had not met before Saturday morning, but were able to perform successfully, Ma said, because of their shared language of music.
Following the performance, the panel discussed cultural identities that are not strictly tied to a certain legally recognized state, which they agreed are becoming more and more salient. Jacqueline Bhabha, an expert on the Roma people, explained their history of discrimination and surprisingly resilient cultural identity.
Previously called Gypsies, the Roma have lived in Europe for hundreds of years and to this day live in camps with few amenities and have difficulty crossing borders. Though they are hardly a united people, Bhabha said that they maintain a strong cultural identity. “It’s remarkable that a community that has enormous difficulties…[has] this tremendously vibrant tradition, particularly music,” she said. “They don’t share a language, they don’t share a religion, they don’t share a nationality, they don’t even share an appearance, but they do share this very strong sense of a cultural community.”
The panelists agreed that sometimes it can be daunting to cross cultural borders. Pato, who specializes in the gaita—a type of bagpipes that is closely tied to an autonomous community in northwest Spain called Galicia—described the critical commentary she received for trying to bring the traditional instrument into novel situations. The gaita has long been associated with the Galician national identity and the way it is distinct from Spain as a whole. “I would have people…screaming and complaining that what I was doing wasn’t right because it was a traditional instrument related to a very political side of Galicia,” she said.
Ma spoke about the experience of being a cultural ambassador. “You start from the inside,” he said. Ma also discussed the ensemble’s decision to perform the Brahms in a more authentic, rhythm-based style rather than traditional classical phrasing to emphasize the piece’s connection to Roma tradition. “Understanding the value priorities of any tradition you’re working with…can give you huge bonus points in heading towards a fair translation,” he said.
Jacobsen, who plays violin in the Ensemble, said that making such cultural boundary-crossings work requires a strong foundation in one’s own culture as well as trust in the potential to communicate between the two cultures. “You have to know something; otherwise you have no ground on which to stand,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you have to learn everything about another tradition in order to participate in it; you need a sense of courage to leap into the unknown…. You may fail, but in failing you hopefully learn something as well.”
Following the panel discussion, the entire Silk Road Ensemble took to the stage, inviting the audience to clap along to an upbeat, Hebrew-influenced John Zorn composition called “Briel from Book of Angels.” The piece showcased instruments with strong affiliations with certain cultures, including a Chinese mouth organ called a sheng, the Indian classical drums called the tabla, and the Galician gaita. Beaming with excitement, Ma gave percussion instruments to all the panelists and showed them how to join in the revelry. The panel’s subject matter had sometimes been somber, but the music functioned as it has for centuries—as the distinct, strong voices of many cultures blended to form something harmonious.
—Staff writer Tree A. Palmedo can be reached at email@example.com.