3 lessons on creativity and culture from Yo-Yo Ma's US-Mexico border concert

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma made headlines earlier last year when he embarked on his ambitious Bach Project to perform Bach's cello suites in 36 locations around the world, across six continents. In April, when Ma performed at the US-Mexico border, he once again made his sentiments heard and felt in asking for communities to come together no matter their cultural differences, rather than build walls to keep people apart.

To his audiences present, he explained that he has always lived his life at borders between cultures, disciplines, music and generations. His concert saw fans applauding not only at venues, but resonated with his online following as well. Speaking at the Salesforce Connections event held in Chicago, Ma explained that the plan was to go to numerous borders across the world to and experience "the edge" to understand what was happening to people. Given Bach’s creation of music where the composer took inspiration from cultures and dances from everywhere around the world from Northern Africa to France, Ma explained the music only seemed appropriate to be played at the borders where cultures integrate.

Here are some key highlights marketers can take away from Ma's inspirational talk on experiences.

  • Creativity lies at the edge

Ma described "the edge", such as the borders, as a place where creativity happens. "We don’t always get to hear about what happens at the edge, but we need to. To help the centre, the core, make decisions," he said.

“We have to resist reduction and simplification. The border is not just the border, it’s a lot of different things. People are much more complex than we make them out to be. It is when we see them up close we realise their complexity," he added.

  • Find your voice and your brand: What do you care about?

Sharing a story of his youth, Ma said that it was one of his teachers in college that challenged him to find his voice beyond just playing music melodiously. He was asked to find the essence of who he was - something that the then confused young Ma thought he had already found. But, it is only later he realised it was about conveying the message of the composer through his voice.

This finding of the voice and branding has led to Ma's overwhelming success which sometimes metrics didn't support. For example, many would be inclined to believe playing Bach to people for 2.5 hours might have just been an impossible task. But Ma decided to go with his gut and in 2017, 17,000 people turned up at the Hollywood Bowl and to watch his show. Ma attributed this to the "right message" resonating.

“Its about more than music. I don’t know what it is, but its about what made you go out and do something you really care about, using all your experience,” he said.  "I didn't have the metric but we bucked the convention of how things should be done."

He told the audience, at the end of the day, "It doesn’t matter what you do, but what are you advocating for."

  • Listen and share to know the future

For Ma, it is important to plant the seeds that will  build the future. He says, listening is key to knowing what seeds to plant.

“Listen and you will know what to do in the future. Culture operates in a different way than a [traditional] business plan,” he said. But he acknowledged today, modern companies are trying to be a part and connect with this culture.

"The seeds you plant for the future are what you need to connect current and future generations. It is not part of your immediate grouping,” he said. To be successful, education and being memorable are key.

"Success to me, is about education and with educational performances being memorable. If you forget what you did today or yesterday, what’s the point? If you get an award but don't remember [the hardships of the project], what it was about,then something is missing. But when you tell someone about your experience, you create a sticky factor and that's success," he said.

Salesforce paid for this journalist's trip to Salesforce Connect, Chicago.