One of the best-known cellists of his generation and of the recording era overall, Yo-Yo Ma is recognized not only for his technical virtuosity but for his engaging interpretative ability, whether the tone is delicate, plaintive, playful, or impassioned. After breaking through with a collection of Bach cello suites in 1983, his ambitions and his appeal stretched far beyond the classical sphere via popular collaborations with such artists as jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin (1992's Hush) and bluegrass musicians Stuart Duncan and Chris Thile (2011's The Goat Rodeo Sessions). Within the classical repertoire, his performances have spanned the Baroque era through works of his contemporaries, and among his repeat collaborators are pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Isaac Stern, and bassist Edgar Meyer. Ma is also founder of the Silk Road Ensemble, a collective of musicians with a multicultural Eurasian focus. He won his 18th Grammy Award in 2017 for Silk Road Ensemble's Sing Me Home, his first in the category of Best World Music Album.
Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris, France in 1955. The child of two musicians, he began music lessons very early, trying piano and all the string instruments before settling on cello. His first public performance was at the age of five. Ma's family moved to New York when he was seven so he could study with Janos Scholz. Before the age of ten, Ma had performed for Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and had appeared on television with his sister in a concert led by Leonard Bernstein and on The Tonight Show. Ma became a student of Leonard Rose at Juilliard, but did not complete his studies there. Inspired by seeing the commitment of nonagenarian Pablo Casals at the Marlboro Festival, he enrolled at Harvard to finish his bachelor's degree, graduating in 1976.
In the '90s, amid a stream of annual classical releases, Ma continued to raise his profile with mainstream audiences on crossover albums such as 1992's Hush with vocalist Bobby McFerrin. Issued by Sony, that record reached the top half of the Billboard 200 and was followed by a duo tour. In 1996, he appeared with bassist Edgar Meyer and violinist Mark O'Connor on the folk-inspired album Appalachian Journey, which went to number one on the Billboard classical chart. The year 1997 saw Soul of the Tango featuring the music of composer Astor Piazzolla, and Ma was the featured soloist on composer Tan Dun's Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind) and on John Williams' score for the film Seven Years in Tibet. That year, he also appeared on the soundtrack to the documentary mini-series Liberty!, which featured O'Connor along with Ma, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and singer/songwriter James Taylor. In 1998, he returned to the Bach suites with Inspired by Bach: The Cello Suites, recording them for six short films in collaboration with director Atom Egoyan, ice dancers Torvill and Dean, dancer Mark Morris, and other artists. He then recorded 1999's Simply Baroque with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and they followed it a year later with Simply Baroque II. Also in 2000, he reunited with O'Connor and Meyer for Appalachian Journey (another classical number one) and with Tan Dun for the soundtrack to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After establishing the Silk Road Ensemble to bring together musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds along the ancient Eurasian trade route, he issued Silk Road Journeys in 2001. Credited as Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble, they presented music such as a Mongolian love song, traditional Chinese songs, and Finnish folk songs. That year, Ma was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by the NEA.