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Yo-Yo Ma's 'Obrigado Brazil'

Cover of the CD <i>Obrigado Brazil</i> (Sony Classical, 2003)
Cover of the CD Obrigado Brazil (Sony Classical, 2003)

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma may be as celebrated for his forays into Appalachian, tango, and Mongolian music as he is for his work in the classical canon. His latest musical journey takes him to Brazil.

Obrigado Brazil -- 'Thank You Brazil,' in English -- brings together an all-star ensemble of Brazilian musicians: the brothers Sergio and Odair Assad on guitars, clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, percussionist Cyro Baptista, singer Rosa Passos, bassist Nilson Matta, and Ma's long time collaborator, pianist Kathryn Stott. The title acknowledges the musicians' appreciation of the creative output Brazilian music has inspired.

NPR's Renee Montagne spoke with Yo-Yo Ma and the Brazilian all-stars during a rehearsal at the Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Compared to the dramatic Argentinian tango music he recorded in 1997, Ma finds Brazilian music "a state of mind," and notes: "...what is coded in that very fine line between the conscious and the unconscious, includes the happy, the sad, the melancholy. But it's never quite sentimental, and often the opposite emotions are also included in any one thing that happens."

"It's that 'Morning Edition' time [when] you are sort of half asleep [and] you actually have access to both your rational and irrational mind," he adds.

Brazilian poet Vinícius de Moraes, also known for his Bossa Nova lyrics, once wrote, "Sadness has no end; happiness does." This sensibility, as well as the music, has its roots in the Choro, a musical style dating back to the 1870s. Choro literally means "a cry." Sergio Assad tells Montagne that the choros began with street musicians playing serenades that combined music heard in the courts with African elements. "The syncopation of the African music gave what Brazilian music is today," he says.

As the choro evolved, and the syncopated rhythms were played faster, the music took on a happier tone. It's this mix of the happy and the melancholy that attracts people from all over the world to the music of Brazil.

A Producer's Note

NPR's Ben Roe offers his thoughts on watching Yo-Yo Ma at work:

"Let’s do something together."

The late violin great Isaac Stern said that to a teenaged cellist named Yo-Yo Ma more than three decades ago. I've often wondered if Stern ever realized how prophetic his words would be. Because the spirit of collaboration -- getting together with other extraordinary musicians to "do something together" -- I think really is at the heart of Yo-Yo Ma's approach to music. And why it's transformed him from being "merely" a virtuoso cellist into being arguably the most famous classical musician on the planet.

Partly because Yo-Yo Ma's drive to "do something together" has taken him far beyond the bounds of garden-variety classical music. And it can be breathtaking to watch, let alone produce: A few years ago, Yo-Yo, fiddle whiz Mark O'Connor and legendary Nashville double-bassist Edgar Meyer interrupted their "Appalachia Waltz" tour to spend an afternoon jamming for NPR, trading licks as fast as their insults -- with grins never far from their faces. Then in the summer of 2002, Yo-Yo's Silk Road Ensemble took over NPR's Studio 4A on a Friday night for what NPR technician Chris Nelson called "the longest and best soundcheck ever" -- a multi-hour rehearsal in preparation for their live NPR taping sessions with Scott Simon and Fred Child the next day. And even while taking a break in the cramped NPR green room, Yo-Yo and his friends still couldn't resist the urge to play together: I'll never forget the sight of watching the world's greatest cellist huddled with such amazing musicians as Chinese erhu player Xu Ke, Iranian ney (a Persian bamboo flute) player Siamak Jahangiri, and the other Silk Road musicians working out an impromptu version of NPR's Performance Today theme.

This time around, we were miles away from Studio 4A -- we were in L.A, directly across the street from gleaming new Disney Hall, for a special session with Yo-Yo's latest international foray, what you might call his "estrada Brasileirana" project -- bringing together some of the finest musicians of the southern hemisphere to play around with the music of Brazil, one of the most fertile musical cultures in the world. Like any Yo-Yo Ma project, it's a mad scramble of schedules to pull off: Ma, the Brazilian musicians, and managers, (not to mention NPR hosts, engineers, page turners, and producers) all just have a few hours to converge in an empty concert hall at the Colburn School for the Performing Arts before centrifugal force kicks in and scatters us all again. And finding our way on to the Brazilian Road is very nearly scuttled by the street closings of L.A.: Work crews applying some finishing touches to Disney Hall makes for a wayard bus full of Brazilian musicians.

That means that this time, Chris Nelson has minutes, not hours, to check the sound. But no matter. The cases are unpacked, and suddenly there are little moments of magic happening all over again. Watching one of Yo-Yo's "supergroups" in action is like watching the NBA All-Stars warm up. Clarinetist (and two-time Latin Grammy winner) Paquito D'Rivera and brothers Sergio and Odair Assad running through a handful of Brazilian choros licks deciding which one they want to play. Master percussionist Cyro Baptista giving a primer on the pandeiro, the Brazilian tambourine, playing more tambourine techniques in 32 bars than you've heard in a lifetime. Yo-Yo Ma playing the opening bars of variations on Mozart's Magic Flute as pianist Kathryn Stott suddenly remembers the very first time they "did something together" 25 years ago. And then having everyone stop what they're doing to hear the mesmerizing voice of Rosa Passos. It's just as captivating to hear Rosa recite the poetic Portugese lyrics to "Chega de Saudade" as it is to hear her sing them. And through it all, the smile never leaves Yo-Yo Ma's face. May some things never change.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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