Prodigy cellist and prolific musician Yo-Yo Ma has recorded more than 90 albums and received 18 Grammy Awards. Celebrated as much for his soloist performances of the standard cello repertoire as his frequent collaborations with multi-disciplinary artists, Ma founded the Silk Road Project in 1998 – an organization aiming to connect artistic pursuits and cultural traditions the world over. In the early days of COVID, he began sharing at-home performances on social media and invited others to join with the hashtag #SongsOfComfort.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Ma’s literary tastes lie heavily in works examining the power of human connection across time and place. Taking part in the New York TimesBy The Book series, the musician reflected on the wonder and wisdom of The Little Prince, the “humanistic imagination” of Ann Patchett, and learning about Haitian history through the memoirs of Alexandre Dumas.

Explore the books on Yo-Yo Ma’s reading list below, and check out his Masterclass on music and connection for a deeper look at his artistic process. Then, dive into the recommendations of other famous music makers here.


The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ by Zora Neale Hurston

My Memoirs by Alexandre Dumas

“The history of Haiti, through the memoirs of Alexandre Dumas, whose father was a French general born in Haiti (then the French colony of Saint-Domingue) to a white French nobleman and a black slave. We hear so much about the modern-day struggles of Haiti, but I had only a vague notion of its history, that Haiti was among the first colonies in the Americas to declare independence and the first nation to abolish slavery for good.” -YYM

Spirit Rising by Angelique Kidjo (also rec’d by David Byrne)

Howards End by E .M. Forster

“Twenty-three years ago, when I was first thinking about the Silkroad Ensemble, I had many intense talks with Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, who were in the process of creating the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Said would always quote Forster: ‘Only connect!’ But it took me two decades to connect with the book.” -YYM

In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey

“I always try to get on a plane with a book that will give me new perspective on the destination. Late in February, just before the pandemic really changed how we live, I visited West Africa for the first time, to play Bach’s cello suites in Dakar. I boarded with Dionne Searcey’s In Pursuit of Disobedient Women, which recounts her years as The Times’s West Africa bureau chief. I landed with the magic of her experience. Like cheating!” -YYM

Washington by Ron Chernow

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (also rec’d by Hayao Miyazaki, Meghan Markle, Mr. RogersStevie Nicks & Trevor Noah)

“Looking at the universe through a child’s gaze, full of wonder, wisdom and innocence, is a perspective we never want to lose as adults.” -YYM

Understanding Toscanini by Joseph Horowitz

“Joseph Horowitz on Toscanini helped give a social and historical context to the world of classical music that I encountered when I moved to New York as a child. The book gave me a way to see how deeply everything changed after World War II, how the immigration of European musicians to the United States helped shape the evolution of classical music for a good half-century and gave me my own musical foundation.” -YYM

Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals

“Casals was one of the greatest cellists of the last century. He rediscovered Bach’s cello suites for generations of musicians and listeners, he stood always for liberty and against despotism, and he lived by a simple philosophy that has become my own: He thought of himself as a human being first, a musician second and, only third, a cellist. I met him when I was 7 and asked him for his autograph, and he gave me some advice: ‘Always make time for baseball.’ It took me decades to realize he was telling me to be a human first.” -YYM

The Hundred Thousand Fools of God by Ted Levin

In the ’90s, I discovered the work of an ethnomusicologist named Ted Levin. I think the first of his books that I read was The Hundred Thousand Fools of God. This was in the years after the Soviet Union breakup gave birth to more than a dozen countries that we knew as the ”stans.’ Ted’s book introduced me to the people who live there; I could hear them, understand their interpretation of nature and of the universe. A few years later, Ted became one of my partners in creating the Silkroad Ensemble, which changed forever how I think about connection and collaboration, innovation and tradition, foreign and local, and what it means to live in an interconnected world.” -YYM

Kalila wa Dimna

“When my son was in sixth grade, his teacher gave him an assignment on Kalila wa Dimna, fables that originated in India and moved to Persia, shared as a way to educate future rulers. But it turns out that they are beloved stories that children know all over the world, stories that we recognize in the fables of Fontaine and Aesop. I’ve wanted to read them ever since. Imagine, a world of leaders bound together with common values. We could use that today.” -YYM

(via The New York Times)

Categories: Musicians