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The Power of Music: From Yo-Yo Ma in Kenya to University Orchestras

The power of music to connect people across boundaries is amazing but can often be underappreciated. When it comes to classical music, in particular, people are hesitant to ascribe it much social power because it is traditionally associated with the upper classes. However, classical ensembles around the world have, time and time again, contributed to the fight against poverty.

Yo-Yo Ma

One of the most influential classical musicians of our time, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is a prominent advocate of the power of music, using it as a medium to bridge the gap between the wealthy and the poor. In 2018, Ma began a journey called the Bach Project. This journey recently ended in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, at the heart of its bustling Kenyatta Market.

Sat next to the Kenyan percussionist Kasiva Mutua outside one of the market’s stalls, Ma performed “Over the Rainbow” on his cello while Mutua accompanied on her drums, creating a “truly eclectic” rendition of this timeless Western song.

This collaboration perfectly displayed Ma’s aim with the Bach Project, which was to celebrate “ordinary people and their diverse experiences,” according to Scrolla. Moreover, as Ma’s musical partner Mutua said of the event, “Classical music has a class – no pun intended. It is seen to belong to a type of people.” In other words, Ma is using his very special talents to erase the lines that have traditionally divided the rich and poor around the world.

Apart from performing at Kenyatta Market, Ma also went on to perform in a conventional music hall in Nairobi, which was also screened for outsiders who were unable to afford or attend the indoor version. Ma also planned a visit to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, where he would be playing alongside artists from all over the rest of Africa.

Allowing underprivileged people who have been historically barred from accessing classical music to now enjoy it firsthand in a way that still resonates with and appreciates their customs and cultures is one of the most personal, communicative ways to show empathy and support in the global fight to end poverty. Direct aid may be a practical form of help, but it creates distance between the giver and the receiver, which can often feel isolating.

On the other hand, Ma’s beautiful playing allowed the busy breadwinners of Nairobi and the inhabitants of the Kakuma refugee camp to slow down and enjoy the peace of the moment for once. Margaret Wanjiru, a Kenyan waitress, said, “It may not be the music I grew up with, but it slows you down, however much you’re busy, and allows you to get lost in your thoughts.”


But it doesn’t take world-class playing to break the barriers between the rich and poor. In Durham, England, Durham University Palatinate Orchestra (DUPO) has been going above and beyond to show the power of music to all corners of their local and international communities. They were the recipients of Durham University’s Palatinate Award for Outreach this year, the highest honor for musicians at Durham University.

The Borgen Project spoke with DUPO’s Outreach Officers, Georgie West and Riccardo Boiteux, to discuss their role in the fight to end poverty.

In their immediate environment of Durham, DUPO organized school workshops and, for the first time ever, performed at the local prison. According to West, “Our school’s workshop allowed children to bring their own instruments, as well as inspire and teach children that had not had the opportunity to explore music yet!”

Boiteux said, “Our reasoning for visiting the prison stemmed from the aim of sharing live music with people who genuinely have no way of accessing it at the moment.” This resonates deeply with Yo-Yo Ma’s purpose but on a more local scale.

Similar to Ma, DUPO’s Outreach Officers wanted to attack the belief that music could only be enjoyed by the upper classes. They said, “Both of our outreach projects this year have tried to tackle this stereotype. Durham Bluecoat Church of England school children had not had the possibility of a school trip in the last few years due to COVID; therefore, our workshop provided them a fun day out and a comfortable learning environment.”

“It did not matter that most of the children did not have an instrument as we were all working together to learn about all the different instruments, how to conduct as well as listening to some of our players perform!

“Similarly with the prison, many people had not experienced live classical music before; therefore, bringing our orchestra to HMP Durham was enjoyed thoroughly by all who attended, and ‘encore’ was being chanted all around!”

West and Boiteux’s efforts at making music available to the underprivileged show that anyone can help to create a lasting impact in the fight to end poverty, from university students to world-famous touring musicians. And learning how to share your resources at a young age are valuable skills that West and Boiteux, among others, will carry forward with them for life.

They said, “As a team, we have learnt that the outreach possibilities are genuinely endless. It is always about putting ourselves out there and connecting with people. All in all, communication has been integral to the role.”

Being part of a large orchestra, the duo could also pass on their love of community, music, and selflessness to the whole group. “The best part about these events was that each orchestra member involved learnt something about how music outreach works, not only us outreach officers.”

Ultimately, the power of music in the fight against poverty is not something to be overlooked. It can easily, as Yo-Yo Ma and DUPO have demonstrated, become a language through which the privileged and the underprivileged can communicate on equal grounds, through which a world without poverty can become a reality.

Source: Borgen Magazine