tv Tavis Smiley PBS December 27, 2011 12:00am-12:30am EST
tavis: good evening, from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. tonight, a conversation with yo-yo ma. he's out with a new project featuring artists and songs from several musical genres called sessions."odeo later this year, he will be among the class of this year's kennedy center honors. a conversation with yo-yo ma and a performance, coming up, right now. >> every communicate has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where stands with your community to make every day better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley, with every
question and every answer, nationwide is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to financial empower. one at a time. >> and from contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: always pleased to have yo-yo ma on this program. the 16-time grammy winner is one of this year's recipients of the kennedy center honors, fitting that a 70-year-old yo-yo ma actually performed for john f. kennedy some years ago. his latest project features a group of talented artists and a
unique blend of musical genres. first, yo-yo ma, an honor, have you on this program. >> i can tell you it's such an honor to be on your show. tavis: i was giddy when i saw the list come out of the kennedy center honors, i was, like, yo-yo ma. you're so young. you got to be one of the younger ones to get the honor. >> i'm trapped in the body of a 96-year-old. tavis: we had sonny rawlins here a couple of weeks ago. i feel blessed to have two of you in the matter of weeks. >> you have the most interesting people on your show and you do what i think is a citizen's duty to check out what's going on in our country, and i think that's -- i think, you know, as musicians, we can't keep a steady job. you, at least, have a steady job. i don't have a day job so we're
always traveling and what you see we try and actually put into music so it's a kind of reporting on what's going on. tavis: i'm glad you said that, it's a great way to start our conversation. since you are so well traveled, what does travel, what has traveling done for your music? i have a wonderful box set of yours that came out a year or so ago that has like 189,000 c.d.'s in it, which i love. i can never get enough yo-yo ma. you travel the world as much as you have and see, to your point, what you have seen, thing that i love about your music is i can hear the humanity in what you do. but tell me how that translates for you in the music. >> i think the group that we have together is, i think, a typically american group in the sense that we all have different experiences. you and i have had very
different experiences in life, and yet there's a commonality. somehow i sense there are common values. you care, you care about what's going on, you care about showing what's going on. and with our group of friends there, it's the same thing. we come and we say, ok, well, this is what kind of music is it? well, is it part classical, part bluegrass, part blues, part appalachian music. it's all of us, so it's not a mish-mash but rather we're trying to take the best of what we think we aspire towards in terms of what we can do as people in music and say, let's make it work together. and i think i sense those values in you whenever i see you on the show or when you go on tour, and i think it's reporting on the stories of people, that that's
what we see. tavis: when i saw a piece -- a written piece about the fact that you were working on this project, there were two questions that came to mind immediately so i'm glad you're here so i can ask you in person. in no particular order, the first question was, how is yo-yo ma going to explain this to the purist because you're in a profession where there are a lot of purists who don't always understand when one of their own goes off the range, as it were. how do you explain this project to the purists? >> i was talking with some of your wonderful crew members here on staff, and i was saying, you know, we're just a bunch of positive deacons. it's true, because what i mean by that is, you want -- i
think part of growth is to go -- and i was checking this with my fellow band members before talking with you, i said, what can we talk about? well, what we care about is constantly getting better. efa said i want to climb my own mountain at my own pace. you want to be the architect of your life. and so no matter where we come from, the deeper you go into anything, you find that there is no purity. purity is a construct and if you're going to grow, you have to constantly open yourself to get to the -- as you know so well -- the, you know, get to the edge of your comfort zone and then report back on what the landscape is, what the environment is. and because, you know, a group of people decided that we're going to dohe result is,
"the goat rodeo sessions." tavis: which the audience will get a chance to hear some of this in just a second. but the second question that came to mind when i saw this was, again, in your profession, you are supposed to play the note that's on the page, you play the score. now, obviously, you play it on the cello better than anyone else in the world so a note isn't just a note because yo-yo gives that note a treatment that other folks can't give on the cello but you are playing to what's on the written score. so bluegrass is like the exact opposite, it's a feeling. you get into it and there is no right or wrong to bluegrass, it's your own stylings. how did you fit in with these guys when you're trying to play the note and they're doing their thing? >> that's a very good question. because stewart, who plays in the nashville bluegrass band for over 26 years, he says, you
know, i've never looked at a piece of music in my life and edgar, the bass player, both can play bluegrass or classical. he's written concertos, he plays everything and he's comfortable all of these or as uncomfortable in anything because he's trying to -- he's going for perfection. he's going for something in his mind that is absolutely pure and beautiful. there is purity, in his mind, there's that kind of purity and we all experience that some of the time but it's really never just in a domain. so we were working until, you know, till we were taping, on a short version of a song that you will hear later on, and we were
kind of figuring out what to do, what's going to sound good. well, it sounds -- and we're using our ears, our eyes, and our minds to say, how can we make this right for the tavis smiley show, for that length, for this audience, and so figure it out. so, yeah, there are certain things that are written down, but actually we'll change it if it doesn't seem right because of the environment that we're in and that's what's so beautiful, is that we're actually each putting ourselves out on the line and figuring it out. tavis: since you used the word uncomfortable, let me ask for you to share with me -- you're smiling already and i didn't ask the question yet. >> you make me comfortable. tavis: i'm glad you're comfortable now. that ain't my question, though. my question is, how uncomfortable were you, really -- you're the best at what you do and i know on a stage in a classical performance, you are at home and could do it in your sleep but
were you ever uncomfortable trying to figure all this out? >> you know what's so great, i think, 30 years ago i would have been really uncomfortable. and i've lived so long and i'm older than you. tavis: barely. >> so that -- much older -- i'm so old and, you know, i don't care about making a fool of myself but if i feel something is wonderful and the chemistry is right between people and we want to be a band, i don't mind making a fool of myself. i was never uncomfortable with this group. why? because they're such fabulous, first of all, human being, and then second of all, great musicians. edgar i've known for over 20 years and edgar's known chris and stewart for over 20 years, so it's an immediate friendship.
your friend is my friend and how it goes. and we're never going to put each other at risk to make them look bad or whatever so there's that sizing up and saying, ok, this is what he can do, this is what we can do together and that's how it comes out. tavis: you've lived long enough, you say, yo-yo, to not be afraid to try things and take risks. at this point in your life, you have nobody to fear in your field and quite frankly you have nothing left to prove in your field so i get the fact that you're ok taking risks. what i don't get is the flipside which is that there are people who become as accomplished as you are who have a different way of seeing things because they know who they are and they know what the audience expects and they know what they're good at, where their gift is and they know how to stay inside their wheelhouse. you never want to go on stage and take too many risks, you're
yo-yo ma, you don't have to take risks at this point to pull in a crowd, to make money, to be regarded around the world. why do you see it one way and others see the other way? >> ultimately it's what you believe in and what you think is important and what you think makes sense. and that's where being old, you've seen so many iterations of people being afraid. i think the greatest things that keeps us as human beings from really advancing is fear. we are paralyzed by fear. tavis: i agree on that. >> and some of that is real, some of it is imagined, and if we can conquer our own fears and our own insecurities and are willing to be in our highly competitive hierarchical society, to be vulnerable, in music, that's a good thing.
vulnerability is a strength. sometimes just strength becomes a weakness. so, in fact, what we're not looking for is acceptance or success or whatever, but what we're looking for in life as well as in finding some way to put music together, put sounds together, is equilibrium. what we're looking for is how do we balance all the competing tugs at you and me in life, how do we put, you know, the fears, the risks, the safety nets, all of that, how can we make it a package within ourselves to say, ok, you know, i can -- i can -- i'm still working on it to have a year where you say, well, this was a great year because, we tried to plan it but also you
took care of all the things that came your way without just saying, well, i can't be bothered. and i think that's this project. tavis: to your beautiful words again, you lead so well. when you said the word equilibrium, it raises the question for me, how you find that balance, that equilibrium, when you bring together four for talented artist who, on paper, have disparate gifts. how do you figure out what the play list will be, what the rundown will be. >> it just worked itself out organnically. it took about a year, a bit over a year, to do this project. never an argument, a harsh word or moment of tension. it just happened, it just -- they worked so hard at it, but it just happened. it was like, ok, let's try this, let's try that, and that's amazing. there was a process, i assume there was, to getting
down to these 11 tracks? how many tracks did you play with? >> i think those were written specifically for the album. think we're going to actually -- we're going to do sort of like a live theater type of thing later on and we might tour but this is something that we wanted to do because i so love these musicians. chris with punch brothers and edgar, who's this all-around great musician and stewart duncan who is, you know, with his bluegrass experience but he's really an inventor in music and efa who has one of the most beautiful voices in the world and sings so beautifully together with chris, we actually share the same values. and that's amazing. so people don't quite know one another that well yet, i met efa through this project and stewart, also, but somehow the
chemistry was instantaneous. you must find that as you go around the country, that people you just look at and say, ok, i get you, i know what. tavis: that's how i felt when i met you years ago. >> i do go by that and i think musicians live on the intuition that is less measurable in society. you know, in society, we're so looking always to measure everything. there are some things that are hard to measure, like trust or hope or vulnerability, and when you sense that in people or that people have access to those kinds of things, that's the chemistry that we're looking for. tavis: you keep leading me, you used the word moment ago, innovation. and i just saw this, i guess, yesterday, that you were asked to perform at steve jobs'
private memorial service. i saw the "60 minutes" piece which is profound and provocative in a lot of ways and for those of us who didn't know much of his personal life because he wasn't very open about it, i think the walter isaacson book will open up a lot of who steve jobs was, the good, the bad and the ugly. but he was a fan of yours and it doesn't surprise me because innovators respect and love innovators. tell me about your friendship with steve jobs and why you were asked to perform. >> i can't quite explain that. i mean, because he's a big hero of mine, my whole family, because, you know, apples and mcintosh's came into our house and never left. and i think -- and i really looked up to him as as role
model for this kind of way of thinking that, in a way, combines -- so, as an innovator or technologist, but the design element of what -- that is not necessarily innately organic is so part of him. i think he went to the edge with the aesthetic sense. people say it was his trip to india or calligraphy class he audited, or looking at the design of braun products that were so beautiful, wherever that aesthetic sense came from, that push to try and find simplicity and beauty in a new way of thinking that was enabled by
technology, i think that is an amazing combination. he went to the edge. we're all trying to go a little bit to the edge to find that moment of creativity and i think that's -- and it's so sad that obviously that he passed away and i, myself, am going to go buy the book and read more about my friend and figure out how this chemistry, also chemistry, developed, because i can't explain it. tavis: let me close where we began, because i want to make room for you and the band to share this music and this performance. i mentioned at the top that you, at the age of 7, performed for john f. kennedy, long before that building -- let me be clear, you were in that same building before it was renamed the kennedy center. so you were there performing for john f. kennedy in the building before it bears his name. do you recall that?
i assume you do. >> i do recall. it was shortly after my family and i moved from france to the united states so i probably barely spoke english and what i was that we went to washington, i met a great cellist named bernard greenhouse and then somehow i associated greenhouse with the white house, it's, like, wait a minute, white house, greenhouse, it's a 7-year-old's point of view. and then, of course, i saw, at the performance, the person that made the greatest impression was the guy who was conducting the national symphony orchestra who was not a musician but he was the funniest person i had ever seen. his name was danny kaye so i thought this guy was great and i wanted to be like him. only later on did i understand that, oh, well, you know -- it's like you have different priorities as a 7-year-old.
tavis: you meet john f. kennedy and you're turned on by danny kaye. >> i still love danny kaye but i obviously have a lot more appreciation for j.f.k. tavis: and that's why i love yo-yo ma. as you can tell from his conversation, his humanity is so effusive, so abundant and i'm always honored to have him on the program and especially when he decides to perform for us which he will do right now, in 30 seconds. yo-yo ma and company will perform a song from this new project, called "the goat rodeo sessions." yo-yo, i love you and there ain't nothing you can do about it. >> you're the best. tavis: stay with us. tavis: four close friends and talented musicians, stewart duncan, edgar meyer, chris steely and efa o'donovan.
boulevard, but a place where wal-mart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy andeme obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is our your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. captioned by the national captioning institute ---www.ncicap.org---