Review: Black Violin brings strings to hip-hop

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Black Violin. Wil Baptiste (viola) and Kev Marcus (violin) are a string duo from Florida with equal footing in the worlds of classical music and hip-hop.

One of the much-felt but little-addressed hurdles for classical music's prospects is its glaring lack of cool.

Black Violin is on the case, and if you saw the violin-viola duo's show Sunday afternoon at World Cafe Live, you probably left feeling that this big image problem had landed in good hands. Let me say straight off that the set of a dozen and a half songs blending hip-hop with classical string technique isn't a cup of tea likely to appeal to core classical fans. It's a highly amplified, electronically enhanced, drum-heavy and monotonous brew of songs exclusively four-four, with nearly all the pieces landing loudly on beats two and four.

But if Black Violin does nothing more than convince children that stringed instruments are an option wide open to them, it will have done more to bridge a generational divide than a lot of orchestras. This was Black Violin's 148th show of the year, and the duo - they met two decades ago as members of a Fort Lauderdale high school orchestra - has performed for 100,000 children in the last year, including about 300 fourth and fifth graders Thursday morning at the John H. Webster Elementary School in Kensington.

The point, electric violinist Kev Marcus (Kevin Sylvester) told Sunday's crowd, is to break down stereotypes, which just happens to be the name of their new album. If the songs fell into the rigid pop-form mold, Black Violin and its band filled in a lot of creativity within those lines. Baroque elaborations or a Paganini-like lick took the spotlight over a relentless beat, and often improv broke out from a repetitive harmonic pattern.

One frequent device was using a four- or five-note repeated figure for structure while variations bloomed, a latter-day Pachelbel canon. Other classical references were more specific, like the Shaker melody that also stirred Copland in Appalachian Spring. Wil B (Wilner Baptiste) serenaded his viola - he calls her "Tiffany" - in a ballade. But here's the remarkable thing about Black Violin: Unlike a lot of crossover concepts, this one never sounds like an arranged marriage. The classical material, while clearly secondary to the hip-hop, becomes fully integrated, and beautifully subsumed.

Sylvester and Baptiste surrounded themselves with great skill. Drummer Nat Stokes took one solo that explored a series of complex rhythms and timbres. Electronics had a big presence, and turntablist DJ SPS scratched and sampled a cleverly curated array of source material. In recordings of spoken word - a retro-1950s-like male voice - he found syncopations, patterns within patterns, and pitch manipulations reminiscent of decades-old musique concrete.

Looking ahead with an air of cool, DJ SPS and friends proved that everything old is new again, and that the cultural ravine is rarely as wide as it looks.

pdobrin@phillynews.com
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