Not Your Grandma’s Violin, But She’d Love Black Violin Too! By Sean Cardinalli
NM Black History Festival’s events climax on Thursday, March 1st at the historic Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, where genre-breaking duo Black Violin performs. Tickets for the night include a chartered bus from Albuquerque to the capital, dinner catered by Jambo Café, and dessert on the ride back. But it’s Black Violin’s astounding ability to mashup music from Bach to Wiz Khalifa which has garnered them rave reviews for years now. Simply put, they’re unlike any other African American act on the music-making horizon.
Black Violin formed with an emphasis on breaking cultural and musical stereotypes, which is precisely what Cathryn McGill and her NM Black History Organizing Committee strive to convey each year with their Black History programming. Black Violin’s 2015 album was entitled Stereotypes to directly address a topic that usually causes uncomfortable conversations. Black Violin dives headlong into defying categories or boundaries that might otherwise be imposed on them as classically-trained, hip-hop-lovin’ black musicians.
Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste formed Black Violin after meeting in high school orchestra class in Florida. Initially, their respective grade school classical training drew them to instruments they weren’t seeking out. Baptiste once admitted in an interview with NPR that literally no one else wanted the viola he ended up mastering; even he initially wanted to play saxophone. Sylvester was pressed by his mother to pick up an instrument in fifth grade, though at first he was reluctant.
As their sound developed, the duo says they “took something that’s been around for 400 years, and [found] different ways to approach it. We encourage the kids to do the same. We encourage unity. We encourage [people] to be who [they] are.” Their personal experiences, including their journey through classical training, motivated their self-imposed mandate to play “music about power and uplifting.”
Sylvester sees their blend of breakbeats and string crescendos as a bridge linking the otherwise distinct genres of hip-hop, popular, and classical music. He notes that Mozart played late 18th century socials full of Austrian fans, not dissimilar to how Grandmaster Flash spun records in the late 1970s at packed Bronx parties.
Black Violin made waves with their 2012 debut album Classically Trained, and then were invited to play one of President Barack Obama’s inaugural balls the very next year. They’ve also worked with or opened for artists as broadly-styled as Aerosmith, Alicia Keys, the late Tom Petty, and Kanye West.
Their work ethic is evident in their consistent touring. In 2016, they teamed up onstage with youth symphonies, which diversified their audiences even further. Their website explains, “We’ve spent the last 10 years working to encourage and empower people of all ages, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds to find what connects us, rather than shine a light on what divides us. [In 2016] alone, we’ve played for nearly 100,000 students and over 125 public shows across the US and Europe.” Appropriately, that concert series was called the Unity Tour. Black Violin strives to bring people together while still challenging social and artistic norms; and they want their musician fans to be just as daring in their own artistic expressions.
Again, that impulse for daring comes from their personal experience. They spontaneously busted out their string instruments aboard a US Airways flight while touring in 2015. It was an cheerful jam session counterpoised with a conversation Sylvester had that same year. While carrying his violin case, Sylvester talked with a white woman in an elevator who couldn’t believe he played classical music. “She didn’t mean it maliciously” he told NPR, “but I hope she gets to see us in concert and we can change her perception.”
Perception-changing is what this month of sharing our African American culture, history, and accomplishments is all about. What started as a scholarly endeavor inaugurated by Carter G. Woodson has morphed into a month-long celebration of the bounty of black American history. Black Violin is making major strides in the contemporary music world—in both classical and hip-hop arenas—while setting a high standard for the next generation of aspiring musicians.
Their next album promises to be similar to previous efforts, but still innovative, still audacious; Baptiste says they’ll stay true to their ethic of “hard-hitting beats with beautiful strings on top.” From Leonard Bernstein favorites to Wu-Tang Clan hits, Black Violin’s concert at Santa Fe’s Lensic is a must-see event for New Mexicans of all colors and interests.