CHICAGO (AP) – The notion of cultural purity is a dead end, said famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was born in Paris to Chinese parents and came to the United States as a child prodigy.

Ma’s internationally recruited Silk Road Ensemble involves instruments such as Indian sitars, Islamic ouds, and Chinese erhu, suona and pipa and has filled museums with works from Azerbaijan, Iran, Mongolia and Uzbekistan.

“I have this theory that I share with (Art Institute of Chicago president) Jim Cuno,” Ma told The Associated Press. “It’s that nothing great was ever produced in isolation.”

Ma says his study of history at Harvard University led him to realize that Eastern and Western cultures are not self-contained, but have mixed since at least the time of Alexander the Great.

“Even something as basic as our Western major and minor keys may have originally come from the amazingly complex modes of classical Persian music,” Ma said.

“And there’s a continual tradition in the West of incorporating music from other parts of the world.”

The pattern continues with instruments, too, he said.

“The guitar and the sitar are obviously related – even linguistically. The oud moves west from Persia to become the lute; it moves east to become the pipa. And a European hears an erhu and says it’s purely Chinese, a Chinese violin, but in Chinese the word “erhu’ means “two-stringed foreign instrument,”‘ Ma said.


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