In his new CD, Notes for The Future, Yo-Yo Ma continues and expands his decades-long quest to make the world kinder, gentler, and more empathic by breaking down the musical and linguistic barriers that wall off cultures and people from each other,
The cello virtuoso, whose formidable gifts are matched by a genuine and generous modesty, puts singers from around the globe front and forward here. While his instrument certainly makes its presence felt, Ma often assumes a back-up role, albeit one of consummate tact and intuitive sensitivity.
What matters most is his role as a connection-making facilitator, an ambassador of art. A number of the album’s nine tracks grew out of collaborations Ma cultivated while performing the Bach Cello Suites in far-flung locations before, during, and after the pandemic.
In voices as various as their countries and tribes of origin, the performers sing of lamentation and loss but also of tradition and hope. They include the Canadian tenor Jeremey Dutcher, chanting hypnotically in his Wolastoq Nation tongue; Beirut-based rock band Mashrou’ Leila, bumped up by Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcy; Taiwanese singer-songwriter and Paiwan tribe member ABAO; and Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs.
“Doorway,” with Michigan Native-Flint singer Tunde Olaniran, sets an early standard of what’s to come. As Ma’s soprano wail gives way to the singer’s transfixing voice, an admonition emerges. “When the sun burns up,” one lyric demands, “can we really say we did what we could?” Ma re-enters with a chittering riff near the end that seems to up the stakes and challenge a listener to respond.
In “Blewu,” the Benin-born, Brooklyn-raised Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo imbues the number with the weary but determined timbre of fully embodied experience. When Ma lofts a descant above her vocal line, this Ewe dirge, composed by Bella Bellow, feels freshly, movingly poignant. Because of Covid, Kidjo and Ma recorded this version in remote locations. Given how delicately woven the number is, a listener would never know.
With very little sung in English in these Notes the musical properties of language itself, irrespective of meaning, takes hold. One doesn’t have literally to understand what the lyrics of “La Sanduga” are saying to apprehend the almost corporeal pulse beat of this triple-meter Oaxacan anthem. The same is true of ABAO’s jaunty song of gratitude, “Thank You.”
Notes for the Future begins with a lamentation and ends with a Maori mourning song. Ma is on his own in the opening “Calvary Ostinato,” by the Black composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Merging twangy blues with supple, conversational rhythms, the cellist lifts lonely sorrow into a plea for company and consolation.
The album ends with “Te Whakaroha Nui,” sung by New Zealander Marlon Williams in tribute to a departed friend. As Ma does in “Ostinato,” Williams finds the uplift in loss. Music, here and throughout this wide-ranging collection, is the universal healing solvent.