The time Yo-Yo Ma left his Stradivarius cello in the back of a New York cab...

10 August 2021, 19:53

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his New York taxi tale
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his New York taxi tale. Picture: Alamy

By Kyle Macdonald

A heart-in-your-mouth tale of a top cellist and a $3.5 million instrument, absent-mindedly left in the back of a taxi.

We know Yo-Yo Ma as one of the great cellists and musical statesmen of our time. His Bach and concerto recordings are iconic, he graciously serenaded the world in lockdown, and with his Silkroad Ensemble, he helps champion music-making as a form of cultural exchange.

But back in 1999, a moment of absent-mindedness orchestrated a musical drama of epic proportions.

It was the day after a performance at New York’s iconic Carnegie Hall, and the world-renowned cellist had to travel across the city. At 1pm on a Saturday in October, he placed his precious instrument in the trunk of a New York taxi cab, for a short ride to Peninsula Hotel on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Upon arrival, he stepped out of the cab and walked into the hotel. As the taxi veered away, Ma suddenly realised that his 1733 Stradivarius cello was still in the boot of the cab.

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His instrument was one of only 60 cellos made by master luthier Antonio Stradivari. It’s valued at over 3.5 million US dollars.

Ma realised he still had his taxi receipt with the cab number, so (presumably with pulse racing) he went straight to Hotel Security. And then began an epic search around Manhattan for the cab and instrument.

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach's Cello Suite No. 1

Hotel Security immediately alerted the Midtown North police precinct, who put out an all-points bulletin to patrol cars around the city to hunt for the taxi. They also contacted the mayor’s office. The mayor’s staff got on the phone to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, who rapidly sent inspectors to find the cab among 13,000-odd yellow cars on the streets.

Police patrol cars also converged on the taxi’s home base, and it turned out the cello’s driver, Dishashi Lukumwena, was getting off work at 4pm.

When he arrived at the end of his shift, police converged, explained what had happened and asked him to open his trunk. Thankfully – after three hours of riding around New York – there was the instrument, safe and sound.

Cellist was then reunited with his instrument. A very happy ending to what must have been an agonising few hours.

“I made a stupid mistake,” Yo-Yo Ma told reporters afterwards. “I just left without it.

“Somehow magic happened, and I have my cello. The instrument is my voice. So I need it. [If it hadn’t been recovered,] I would be crying right now.”