Yo-Yo Ma Comes to Tunisia, with a Little Help from CMES

May 6, 2022
Yo-Yo Ma tours Medina of Tunis with local students

When world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 and his Bach Project visited Tunisia in March 2022, it was the realization of plans set in motion over two years earlier with help from members of the CMES Tunisia community.

The Bach Project (bach.yo-yoma.com) began in 2018 with the goal to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world. In addition to celebrating the power of music to connect people, the project also seeks to explore and celebrate all the ways that culture makes people stronger as individuals, as communities, as societies, and as a planet. Thus, in conjunction with each Bach Project concert, Ma and his team partner with artists and culture makers, cultural and community organizations, and local leaders from across sectors to design conversations, collaborations, and performances on a smaller scale for a “Day of Action” in the communities they visit.

Originally scheduled for April 2020 but, like so many other events, performances, and gatherings around the world, delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bach Project’s visit to Tunisia finally took place this March. On March 26, Ma performed the cello suites at the Théâtre de l’Opéra de la Cité de la Culture Tunis for an audience of over 1,500.

Yo-Yo Ma onstage at Cité de la Culture Tunis
Yo-Yo Ma performing at the Théâtre de l’Opéra de la Cité de la Culture Tunis

“The concert was an encounter with beauty,” says CMES Tunisia Administrative and Program Manager Sihem Lamine, who worked closely with the Bach Project team on preparations for the visit. “It was an experience comparable to seeing a Van Gogh masterpiece or the Hagia Sophia, or a great city or landscape, for the first time. You leave the room as a different person. Yo-Yo Ma invents a musical language of his own. It was mind-blowing to listen to the Bach suites—which are among the least approachable pieces of classical music—performed in a way that transforms them into something more accessible, that speaks to the deepest human emotions, beyond the cultural background of the listener. The concert was a gift to the city. I am certain many people in the audience, like myself, will keep the memory of this performance with them for the rest of their lives.”

Ma dedicated the second day of his visit to action and dialogue on how culture connects people and how hope can be (re)built through creative heritage. On Sunday morning, Ma met with a group of of creative peacemakers from Libya who convened in Tunis to explore reconciliation through artistic and creative ventures. Ma joined a discussion about cultural reunification through the stories of Libyan artists, arranged in partnership with the delegation of the European Union in Tunisia, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, and the Libyan Peacemakers Network. Videos of the group’s workshops will be used to promote ongoing peace initiatives in Libya.

Yo-Yo Ma tours Medina of Tunis with local students
Touring the historic Medina of Tunis with local students

The second part of the Day of Action took place in the Medina (old city) of Tunis and was coordinated in partnership with Blue Fish, a social enterprise dedicated to heritage preservation, urban revival, and community empowerment, led by Leila Ben-Gacem. Ma met for a conversation with a group of local students, with whom he then toured the historic Medina. As craft is an essential part of Tunisia’s culture, history, and future, they visited the studios and shops of artisans, including silk weaver Abdennebi Chentouri, shoemaker Souhail Fitouri, and bookbinder Mohamed Ben Sassi. Following the visits, fourth-generation calligraphy artist Mohamed Saber Akili joined Ma for a calligraphy workshop at Dar Ben-Gacem, a beautifully restored guesthouse and event space and sister company to Blue Fish, owned and operated by Leila Ben-Gacem, who helped facilitate several of the activities during Ma’s visit.

Yo-Yo Ma with silk weaver Abdennebi Chentouri
In the workshop of silk weaver Abdennebi Chentouri

Yo-Yo Ma with bookbinder Mohamed Ben Sassi
In the workshop of bookbinder Mohamed Ben Sassi

Yo-Yo Ma with shoemaker Souhail Fitouri
In the workshop of shoemaker Souhail Fitouri

Later in the afternoon, the CMES Tunisia Office hosted a panel discussion at Dar Ben-Gacem with Ma and two Tunisian artists, painter and sculpturist Sonia Kallel and urbex photographer Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed, moderated by Lamine. The three artists talked about their work and projects, touching on themes as diverse as beauty, memory, heritage, the sense of belonging to a land or a culture, the work of construction craft workers, who are vital to the preservation and restoration of Tunisia’s architectural history, and the role of artists in society and the world, specifically in times of war and crisis.

Yo-Yo Ma panel discussion with discussion with artists Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed and Sonia Kallel
Panel discussion with artists Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed and Sonia Kallel

The day concluded on the Dar Ben-Gacem rooftop, overlooking the city and the domes of Mohamed Bey Mosque. As the sun set, second-generation Tunisian musician Sabry Mosbah and his group featuring guitar, lute, and piano performed for the afternoon’s participants, including a collaboration with Ma. Poet Zina Ben Ammar presented reflections on Tunisia’s cultural future and the socio-economics of Tunisia today. And finally, Ma performed a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which was followed by a symphony of calls for prayer emanating from the Medina’s minarets.

Yo-Yo Ma performing with Sabry Mosbah trio
Performing with Sabry Mosbah on the Dar Ben-Gacem rooftop

“I believe stars had to align for Yo-Yo Ma’s visit to Tunis to be possible,” says Lamine. “When it finally happened, it was beyond all expectations and preparation efforts.” CMES might not have been involved with the project at all, however, were it not for the intervention of CMES PhD candidate Salmaan Mirza and Harvard NELC alumnus Dustin Klinger, PhD ’21. After they had spent time with CMES in Tunis, they suggested to mutual friend Sophie Shackleton, a senior producer in Ma’s office who scouts projects and locations, that the CMES Tunisia Office would be a valuable partner especially in planning the Day of Action activities in Tunis, and they introduced her to Lamine.

Yo-Yo Ma with Sihem Lamine and Leila Ben-Gacem
With Sihem Lamine and Leila Ben-Gacem

CMES began hosting student and faculty travel and research to Tunisia in 2016, and in 2017 officially opened an office in Tunis, with work and event spaces. Over 120 students, faculty, and administrative officials from across Harvard have visited for research and language study, and the office has hosted dozens of public and private lectures, conferences, and workshops, including a full slate of virtual events during the Covid period. Funding for the office and programming was provided by a gift from Harvard College alumnus Hazem Ben-Gacem ’92. A second gift from Ben-Gacem, in 2021, will fund the office, student and faculty travel, and related programming through 2026.

“Although music is not what the CMES Tunisia Office is usually programmed for,” says Lamine, “contributing to the Bach Project Tunis 2022 lies at the core of our mission to build bridges between scholarly communities and institutions, and seek impact through academic and cultural exchange. It was a great satisfaction to see members of CMES Tunisia’s alumni community extend these goals beyond the strictly academic milieu, and actively contribute to making beautiful events like this one possible. And I am proud to see that the CMES Tunisia Office has now built the capacity and community to support, host, or originate impactful projects and embrace initiatives greater than its original sphere of activity.”

All photos: Austin Mann