Black Violin gave an energetic performance at NJPAC on February 22. It’s hard to think of another African-American violin player to make their mark in popular music, so classically trained South Florida twosome, Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste and Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester, who go by the name Black Violin are a welcome revelation for their ability to meld highbrow and pop culture, “Brandenburg” and “breakdown,” into a single genre-busting act. “Black Violin works hard, but makes it all look like play… Sometimes they play with the intense seriousness of orchestral soloists; at others they fiddle as if at a hoedown; at still others they strum the violin and viola like guitars.”The hour-long show held in the Victoria Theater, motivated audience members to their feet, dancing and clapping. The duo was accompanied by DJ TK on the turntables as an added ingredient, and gave that night’s performance an extra contemporary and classical bravura fusion. The duet presented a versatile, interactive performance by including the audience in the choosing of musical selections and astonishing the crowd with traditional classics by Johann Sebastian Bach.
The band’s 2013 album, Classically Trained, is the follow-up to their 2007 self-titled debut on their own Di-Versatile Music Group label, which is as good an introduction to their groundbreaking blend of classical, hip-hop, rock, R&B, and even bluegrass music. Live, they are often accompanied by their crack band, featuring ace turntable whiz DJTK (Dwayne Dayal), drummer Beatdown (Jermaine McQueen) and cellist Joe Cello (Joseph Valbrun).
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.The combination spreads various gondres of music, but let make one thing clear, their groove is differently hip- hop or Doo-bop a combined sound and sytle experimented by the late Miles Davis, final album, “A Little taste of the be-bop sound with the backdrop Of doo-wop and this is why we call it doo-bop”“We’re the biggest independent group that no one has ever heard of, “ says Kev.
Wil B and Kev Marcus are classically trained viola and violin players who first met playing in the high school orchestra in Fort Lauderdale, FL. After graduating college, they joined up as hip-hop studio rats in the South Florida, working with several different acts before returning to their roots by fusing the two genres in a groundbreaking collaboration that has seen them play their music for everybody from the troops in Iraq to both the official President’s Inaugural Ball and the Kids Inaugural in Washington, DC, where Barack Obama himself gave each a hearty hand-shake and man hug, as First Lady Michelle Obama looked on approvingly. The pair also headlined 40 shows in two stints at the New Victory Theater on Broadway, including 16 sold-out shows over two weeks last November. Along the way, they’ve wowed audiences at the legendary Harlem Apollo Theatre, accompanied Alicia Keys’ performance of “Karma” at the 2004 Billboard Awards, and appeared with Gym Class Heroes and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump playing the hit song, “Stereo Hearts,” for VH1’s Unplugged.
Since starting Black Violin a decade ago—named after an album by preeminent African-American swing era jazz violinist Stuff Smith—Wil B and Kev have performed an average of 200 shows a year in 49 states and 36 countries as far away as Dubai, Prague and South Africa, while appearing at official NFL celebrations for three Super Bowls and last year’s U.S. Open in Forest Hills with Jordin Sparks. The pair has played with the likes of Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda’s Fort Minor, while opening for Fat Joe, Akon and the Wu-Tang Clan. Individually and together, Black Violin has collaborated with the likes of P. Diddy, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin and The Eagles. Kev supplied strings for a track on Lupe Fiasco’s Grammy-nominated Food & Liquor 2 album, and appeared on the Meek Mill cut “Maybach Curtains” with John Legend, Rick Ross and Nas. Wil and Kev also scored an episode of CSI: New York, adapting the finale of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly for an on-screen murder.
“It’s now time to spread the word about Black Violin,” insists Kev. “The groundswell is just beginning.”
It was an interesting audience mix, with thirty and forty years olds bopping to the hip sounds with their children. This seems to be by design. “It’s something everyone can enjoy, whether you’re an 80-year-old grandmother or a kid in kindergarten,” adds Wil B. “It’s classical, hip-hop, rock, R&B, pop… just goodmusic.” The result is inspiring to all ages, though Black Violin remains particularly committed to turning young fans on to their own potential through a tireless schedule of appearances at schools, where they constantly stress the importance of arts education.
Take a listen to songs like “Jammin’,” “Dirty Orchestra,” “Virtuoso,” “Rock Anthem” or “Brandenburg,” which puts the “backbeat” to Bach’s famed concertos, or check out Wil B and Kev Marcus strut the stage with their instruments like rock stars on their YouTube page, effortlessly combining different forms of music. With Wil B’s smooth vocals, Black Violin has even begun to explore R&B and soul on songs like the dreamy “End of the World” and the plaintive ballad, “Interlude (Tiffany).”
“We’re passionate about it because we realize how fortunate we were to grow up having access to that,” explains Wil B. “It’s something in which we take a great deal of pride. We encourage kids to think creatively, to take what they love doing and try to come up with something no one has ever done before. And that doesn’t just apply to playing violin or even music, but whatever it is you decide to do. Expand your mind. Once we get their attention with the music, that’s the message we want to deliver.”
The video for the song “Triumph” illustrates the concept perfectly, as a young boy is faced with choosing between the temptations of the street and picking up a musical instrument at school.
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 Miam 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:
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.”