A couple of weeks ago, Black Violin played at Bloomington’s historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Sitting in the front row with my daughter, who plays the violin (her idea, not mine), I fretted when I noticed the house wasn’t at capacity. What a welcome, I thought. But my worry was in vain. Black Violin had the entire audience on their feet in no time with their mix of classical, hip-hop, rock, R&B, and bluegrass. They mobilize their talent and energy and people respond in kind.
Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester and Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste are the classically trained violin and viola playing duo that anchor Black Violin. With them are master turntabler DJTK (Dwayne Dayal), tight drummer Beatdown (Jermaine McQueen), and cellist Joe Cello (Joseph Valbrun, though he didn’t make the Bloomington show). Kev kindly spoke with me after the show as the others broke down and packed up equipment.
Hailing from Miami, I asked about the musical soundscape there. Kev said this: “We’re Caribbean guys. Wil is Haitian and I’m from Dominica [a small Antillean island] and living in Miami there are all the Afro-Cuban influences. Then there are all the white influences, black influences, and everything else … When we have family parties, it’s souca and calypso compared to us loving and listening to hip-hop and we studied classical so we have so many places to draw inspiration from.”
Kev and Wil started playing together in high school and both had scholarships to different music schools for college. They studied classical music but started playing the music they listened to outside school on their strings and produced something completely new. Check out “A-Flat” from their sophomore album, Classically Trained out in May 2013 on their independent label Di-Versatile Music Group. The video was shot in Brooklyn:
To get a sense of them live, here they are performing “freestyle,” as they do at every show. Social media savvy and friendly, they invite the audience to video, take pictures with flash, and post to YouTube and Facebook hashtagging it #blackviolin. The music revolution will be televised!
Black Violin played at both of President Obama’s inaugurations and they’ve played, together or individually, with Jay-Z, Nas, Alicia Keys, and Akon in the States, in Dubai, and in South Africa. But they seem happiest on small stages reaching out to new audiences and realizing their mission: “entertain, educate, and inspire.” And since they are genre busters, as Kev said, “we have no demographic…we have something for everyone.”
Neither Kev nor Wil comes from families where people played musical instruments at home, though people listened and danced to music at family celebrations and parties. I asked him what he most likes about the violin: “I think the violin mimics the human voice the most of any instrument. I could never sing but I can sing with my violin. What speaks to me now, after playing for 22 years, is that I can do things no one else can do. And the fact that I am continually trying to push it, and as a group we are trying to push it. I also like that I don’t look like a violinist. That is one of my favorite things about it.”
Ah yes, blackness and violin-ness and the betrayals of history and its books. The violin is a European instrument. But the African continent is home to the kora, ngoni, bolon, kibangala, and other stringed instruments. Jazz violinist Regina Carter, who received a MacArthur genius award in 2006, used it to explore the “African Roots of Violin” that resulted in her album Reverse Thread. And we can hear that transatlantic exchange too in Black Violin, a band that takes their name from bebop era jazz violinist’s Stuff Smith’s Black Violin album. Three cheers for this iteration of the black Atlantic!