With a definite departure from only classical or bluegrass music, these guys are not your grandparents' string players. Heck, they're not even your parents' string players.
The duo Black Violin whips up a high-energy hybrid of classical, hip-hop, rock and other musical genres that reaches out and grabs the listener by the ears. Head-bobbing is a natural reaction while soaking in this addicting vibe played out by Wil Baptiste on his viola and Kev Marcus on violin.
The two met as high school students in a Fort Lauderdale performing arts program, later teaming up to form Black Violin after studying at separate universities. They've been performing as a duo for about the past 14 years, according to Baptiste.
Their music has been described as "classical boom," and they've shared stages with Kanye West, Aerosmith and Tom Petty, while collaborating with the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean and Alicia Keys. They won the "Showtime at the Apollo" talent show in 2005, performed at President Obama's 2013 inauguration, and have averaged more than 150 shows per year. But Baptiste says the group tries not to tour as much these days, now that they both have wives and kids at home.
This will be Black Violin's first time playing Bend, with a Sunday night gig at the Tower Theatre that falls in the middle of a three-night run between Spokane and Portland. Joining them on stage will be DJ SPS and drummer Nat Stokes, who provide a tight backbone for their stringed strokes. For a good taste, go to blackviolin.net and check out some of their videos. It's original, infectious music that's appealing and just fun to listen to.
On a recent morning, the soft-spoken, articulate Baptiste phoned in from his home in south Florida. "Our show is high energy and dynamic," he says. "It's just a fun show. Our live show is always very different. If you love music and you love strings, this is a show that you can bring your kids to, your grandparents. It's a show that everyone can share and enjoy." Baptiste says they play about an 80/20 mix of original material to cover songs.
Baptiste told me his personal influences range from Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), both examples of what he calls, "music I can visualize." The name Black Violin comes from another influence, a 1967 album of the same name released by violinist Stuff Smith.
The duo often works with local students between shows, whether it's visiting schools or having students come to the venue to observe the sound check. "We try to do as much as we can." When working with students, Baptiste said their goal is to entice and inspire the kids to seek their own muse. "We want them to love themselves, love each other and to love others." Black Violin is not out to make students pick up a violin or viola, but to discover their own voices. "This is our voice, our vehicle, and we want them to use their own voice and their own vehicle."
One mission for the group seems to be defying stereotypes—which is also the name of their third and most recent album, released in September 2015.
In a 2015 interview with the PBS NewsHour, violinist Marcus said, "I would hear the hip-hop beat and pick up my violin and play to it. We studied classical, but we lived rap music." Marcus also admits that he looks more like he should be a linebacker, rather than a classical musician.
The two musicians took unlikely paths to their passions. Baptiste explained that he wanted to play the saxophone, but was placed in the wrong class. "Right before I picked up the viola, I was a 12-year-old kid in the hood." Meanwhile, in a video on the group's website, Marcus explains that his mom put him into a music class when he was nine years old after he was caught stealing some candy. "The only thing left was a violin, and I did not want to play that instrument." Fast forward to today, when inaugurations and national tours are their reality.
The Fret Drifters from Medford will open for Black Violin at their Bend show.
Sunday, April 2, 7 pm
835 NW Wall St., Bend