Why Yo-Yo Ma thinks culture and music can help protect the planet

The cello virtuoso has been playing Bach concerts on six continents. At every stop, he joins activities to support social justice and environmental causes.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2019, Yo-Yo Ma plays a “Music in the Mangroves” concert, to help scientists and community members drive home the importance of saving threatened mangrove ecosystems.
Photograph by AUSTIN MANN

On a sunlit February morning in Cape Town, Ross Frylinck waited near the doorway of a private home perched on a steep mountainside overlooking False Bay. Co-founder of the Sea Change Project, an environmental organization dedicated to preserving the kelp forest in South Africa’s coastal waters, Frylinck had gathered with a group of colleagues and musicians to welcome Yo-Yo Ma to Cape Town, one of 36 stops on the cellist’s six-continent tour known as the Bach Project.

Preparing to receive one of the world’s most celebrated musicians caused some trepidation. “We were all a bit intimidated,” Frylinck said later. But the tension dissipated as soon as Ma arrived. The cellist’s face was open and warm, and his demeanor caring, earnest, and inquisitive. “His whole heart was smiling in the room,” Frylinck said.

Inside the small wood and stone dwelling, Frylinck and Sea Change co-founder Craig Foster told Ma about their campaign to protect what they call the Great African Seaforest, a swaying jungle of giant kelp that Frylinck likens to an untouched Amazon rainforest, with dense canopies of plants and flocks of fish that fly like birds through the currents. The activists showed Ma the percussion and other musical instruments that their team created from materials that washed up on the beach on Cape Town’s coast: shakers made from shark egg cases, a stringed instrument made from abalone shell, a drum made from a humpback whale ear bone. And they introduced Ma to South African singer Zolani Mahola, who had helped the group bring together instruments, music, and lyrics to fashion their sea-forest anthem.

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