Yo-Yo Ma Surprises Bystanders In Mumbai With A Mini-Concert

Jan 23, 2019
Originally published on January 23, 2019 6:40 pm

World-renowned Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma has recorded more than 100 albums, received 19 Grammys, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, most recently, performed a sold-out concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, India.

But on Tuesday evening, most onlookers knew none of his accomplishments — or even who he was — as he gave an impromptu recital on the Marine Drive promenade in the southern part of the city.

The 20-minute performance – amid the sound of cars in traffic – consisted of vignettes from J.S. Bach's Suite No. 1 for solo cello.

After the 63-year-old finished, he shook hands with people in the crowd and walked into his five-star hotel across the street, according to the Mumbai Mirror.

"I am not quite sure what he played. But listening to him left me spellbound. I have given him my card, and he has promised to write to me soon," Mumbai resident Prakash Poddar told the newspaper.

This isn't Ma's first impromptu performance. In December, he gave a free concert in one of Montreal's metro stations. And in 2011, he partnered with the Chicago Children's Choir to give a surprise concert to passers-by at one of Chicago's major commuter rail terminals.

Ma's visit to Mumbai is part of his Bach Project, where his goal is to perform Bach's six suites for solo cello in one sitting, in 36 locations around the world.

The prelude from Bach's Suite No. 1, which Ma performed at a Tiny Desk concert last year, is the first piece of music he learned when he started playing the cello at age 4.

"We go through these different evolutions," Ma said about his relationship with the Bach cello suites in an interview with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly. "Each time you go through an evolution you're using all of what you learned from a previous evolution and applying it to your present state. So it's an additive thing, and I think that's what culture does."

"Music," he said, "actually was invented, as all of culture was invented — by us — to help all of us figure out who we are."

Ma's next performance for the Bach Project will be in San Antonio in April.

Matt Ozug and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Lindsey Feingold is the NPR Digital Content intern.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last night was just your usual, busy Tuesday evening in one of the busiest, biggest cities in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "CELLO SUITE NO. 1")

KELLY: And it was there that a lucky handful of people hanging out in Mumbai, India, on Marine Drive promenade were treated to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "CELLO SUITE NO. 1")

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma giving an impromptu performance. According to the Mumbai Mirror newspaper, a little before sundown, Ma quietly walked onto the promenade, sat on the wall that separates the sea from the city and began to play Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1."

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "CELLO SUITE NO. 1")

KELLY: For 20 minutes, the typical sounds of Marine Drive - choking traffic, cacophonous car horns - mingled with Bach. Onlookers had no idea who the performer was.

CORNISH: But that didn't matter. One bystander told The Mirror, I'm not quite sure what he played, but listening to him left me spellbound. And that feeling is probably just what Ma was trying for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: That's Ma here at NPR last August. He stopped by to play for us and to talk about his Bach project, a 36-city worldwide tour where he is playing the complete suites. A musical journey, Ma told me, motivated by Bach's ability to speak to our common humanity at a time of division in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

YO-YO MA: Music actually was invented, as all of culture was invented, by us to help all of us figure out who we are, what the culture of us is and to start a conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.