In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re recognizing the economic, cultural, political, social, and scientific contributions of influential immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape the vibrant tapestry of America.
Today we salute French-born American and 19-time Grammy Award-winning musician Yo-Yo Ma.
Yo-Yo Ma was born in 1955 in Paris, France. His parents migrated from the Republic of China during the Chinese Civil War. His mother was a singer, and his father, who initially trained him and his two siblings, was a composer and music teacher. Ma’s father started all his children on the violin when they were toddlers, teaching them early in the morning before sunrise. Yo-Yo began playing the cello when he was four years old, and by five, he memorized multiple Johann Sebastian Bach solo suites.
In 1962, at the age of seven, Ma’s family moved to New York. Later that same year, his highly developed talents were featured on the national stage when he performed before President John Kennedy. At 15, he performed solo at New York’s Carnegie Hall for the first time.
Ma attended the prestigious Julliard School in New York. Already a famous classical musician, he then opted to enroll at Harvard while limiting his music performances to focus on a rounded education. He graduated from Harvard in 1976 with a liberal arts degree. Post graduation, his lofty music goals were briefly interrupted by severe scoliosis and subsequent back surgery that left him in a body cast for six months during recovery. Ma’s penchant for experimentation became a telltale for his career.
He is credited for bringing classical music to a broad audience. He has produced over 120 albums, won 19 Grammy Awards, collaborated with many other musicians, and delved into non-classical genres, including traditional Chinese and even American Bluegrass. He is lauded for the rich tone of his music and meticulously detailed technique.
In 1998, Ma launched his Silk Road Project to educate and study the culture and art that blossomed on the Silk Road, a network of Eurasian trade routes connecting the East and West that was traveled from the second century BCE until the mid-15th century.
The project works to bring artists and audiences together. In 2000, Ma performed on the cinematic soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an international success that won four Academy Awards, including best original score.
In 2001, Ma was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2010, President Obama awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yo-Yo Ma currently serves as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.