Strings and beats

Black Violin hits the stage at Victoria Theatre

By Emma Jarman

A band teacher and an orchestra teacher walk onto a golf course.

What sounds like the introductory line to a bad and somewhat offensive joke is actually the beginning of the story of Black Violin.

A band instructor and an orchestra director walk onto a golf course. One says to the other, if you win, you get him; if I win, I get him. And that’s how 14-year-old Wilner Baptiste landed in the strings class. The orchestra teacher won that round. It was a stroke of luck—perhaps fate—and with the swing of a golf club that began the series of events, which paired freshman viola player Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste (viola) and sophomore violin player Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester (violin) as stand partners, friends and eventually the nationally touring duo that is Black Violin.

“I wanted to play the saxophone,” Baptiste says. Banging on tables in lunchrooms landed the musically-driven child into some trouble with a school security guard. The guard attempted to channel the child’s energy into something productive. Pick up an instrument, he’d say. I play gigs on the weekends for some extra money—you could do that, he’d say. Baptiste never did make any weekend money on the saxophone, “But I’m making money now!” he says.

Baptiste and Marcus shared a music stand in the orchestra and a love for hip-hop music, and so began the evolution of Black Violin. Baptiste says it’s Marcus who is the methodical thinker, the one who breaks things down into organized and manageable bits, the one who analyzes the pieces. Baptiste, however, describes his approach as “all feel.”

“It’s all about feeling for me. I try not to think too much when it comes to music, I try to just let the feeling move me.”

It took off. They ran with it.

“We lived hip-hop,” says Baptiste. “We just happened to be playing violin and classical music, but we lived hip-hop so it was very natural for us to put the two together. If you think of hip-hop, it’s all about expression. For us it wasn’t really a weird thing to try to play something different on the violin. That’s just what hip-hop is all about and that’s what we did.”

If hip-hop and classical music are the mother and father of Black Violin, the sound sure does have a lot of crazy uncles and cousins contributing. Influences include folk music, along with some bluegrass and country edge. Influential names include Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill.

“The concept itself is crazy,” admits Baptiste. “Hip-hop, classical? See two black guys? Eh, I don’t know. But we’ve been fortunate to be able to captivate the masses at every show.”

He equates the Black Violin appeal to that of a baseball game. “You’re gonna find young and old. You’re going to find black, white, purple, green. There’s no demographic when it comes to sports, and that’s exactly what you’re going to find at a Black Violin concert.”

Whether they’re playing for an intimate group of 300 or an audience of 40,000, touring with Linkin Park, Fort Minor or playing a music festival, Black Violin delivers a crowd-pleasing experience. “We always start epic and end epic,” boasts Baptiste.

The audience response inspires the duo to keep going, and after 12 years of touring, to continue to move the masses and play the next show, and the next, and the next. With family back home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, it is sometimes difficult to be on the road for that long. Baptiste has a 2-month-old child waiting at home for him.

“It’s really special being able to do what we do,” he continues. “Like last night we performed in Portland, [Oregon], and these young kids performed with us … These are kids that are struggling at home, but they play the strings: violin, viola, cello, bass. It was incredible for them to be able to be on stage that day, and as much as it was for them, it was for us as well. Doing things like that, these outreach things, that’s why I do it. Being able to inspire, uplift and entertain at the same time. It’s amazing work that we’re doing.”

In 2013, Black Violin played the president’s Inaugural Ball. They’ve performed in official celebrations for three Super Bowls. They have played an average of 200 shows a year in 49 states and 36 countries from Dubai to South Africa. They’ve played onstage with disadvantaged children and other big name nationally touring recording artists. March 11 they will hit the Victoria Theatre stage in Dayton, Ohio.

“The thing about our show is you’re never going to guess what it’s going to be like,” forewarns Baptiste. “Literally expect the unexpected. That’s what our show is all about: just expect to have a great time. Just know we’re probably going to exceed your expectations.”

Black Violin will perform at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Friday, March 11 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in Dayton. Tickets are $30-$50. Student and military discounts are available. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit  blackviolin.net or my.ticketcenterstage.com or call 937.228.3630

Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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