A game of golf between college music teachers may have determined the existence of one of the most innovative musical duos performing today.
Wil Baptiste and Kevin Sylvester form the Grammy-nominated violin/viola duo Black Violin. The group, known for their dynamic performance style and unique blend of classical and hip-hop music, will play at the Brown Theater on February 16, but more than 20 years ago the fate of one of the members was decided. on a golf course in Florida. .
When 12-year-old Baptiste started middle school, he expressed an interest in learning to play an instrument. This was “good news” for both the college orchestra director and the conductor, as both needed more members. Since Baptiste didn’t seem to have a strong preference, the music teachers agreed that the winner of their weekend golf game would determine whether he would join the orchestra or the band.
“I didn’t find out about it until many years later,” Baptiste told the Courier Journal. “I met my orchestra teacher and he told me the story. I guess I’m lucky he brought his A-Game that day.”
Baptiste chose the viola because most of the other string instruments were taken from the college orchestra’s rehearsal room. At another college in Florida, Sylvester was learning to play the violin.
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The two met while attending a performing arts high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During their class and practice time, they developed firm classical techniques, and in their free time, they listened to hip-hop and rhythm and blues.
“One day our instructor gave us an album to listen to by jazz violinist Stuff Smith,” Baptiste said. “The name of the album was ‘Black Violin’.”
The sound of the album was unlike anything the two friends had heard before.
“It was like a violin on fire. Like a violin with a soul like I had never heard a violin played like that,” Sylvester told PBS News Hour. “When I listened to it, I could tell it was a black man playing it. I had never had that experience with a violin. It changed my perception of what a violin could do.”
The album changed the duo’s approach to their instruments. After graduating from different universities, the two friends developed an act spanning hip-hop songs on viola and fiddle that drew people to local Florida clubs. Two years after sending a recording to Showtime at the Apollo, they were asked to appear on the show, which they won.
Today, musicians continue to change and challenge people’s perceptions of what music can sound like and who should play various instruments.
“I like playing the violin because no one expects it,” Sylvester said. “I love changing people’s perception of what’s possible.”
Black Violin has shared its energetic mix of musical styles on stage with big-name artists such as Kanye West, now known as Ye, Aerosmith and Tom Petty, and has collaborated creatively with Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean and Alicia Keys.
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Over the past 20 years, the duo, who go by the stage names Wil B. and Kev Marcus, have built a fan base that fills venues filled with multigenerational, ethnically and economically diverse audiences.
“There’s nothing quite like doing something you absolutely love and affecting people,” Baptiste said. “We mix different genres together and it’s just fun. People end up dancing in the aisles. It really brings people together.”
Their debut album, “Black Violin”, was released in 2006, followed by “Classically Trained” in 2012 and “Stereotypes” in 2015. The duo’s latest album, “Take the Stairs”, was released in 2019. The album earned Black Violin a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
Prior to COVID-19, Black Violin played over 200 shows a year around the world and always focused on raising awareness. Baptiste said they were grateful to be back touring in front of live audiences and teaming up with schools and performing arts centers.
“Whether we’re on stage in a theater or performing in front of school children, we’re spreading the message that anything is possible,” Baptiste told the Courier Journal. “There are no limits to what you can accomplish, no matter the circumstances. Just find your talent and let the world see it.”
Contact Kirby Adams at [email protected] or Twitter @kirbylouisville.
BLACK VIOLIN: VISIT IMPOSSIBLE
WHAT: Classical music meets hip-hop in groundbreaking duo Black Violin, who blur the lines between genre, race and gender with their unique fusion of groove and strings. The outfit includes Will Baptiste on viola and Kev Marcus on violin.
WHEN: Wednesday, February 16, 7:30 p.m.
OR: The Brown Theater, 315 W. Broadway
COST: Tickets start at $25
MORE INFORMATION: kentuckyperformingarts.org
Other Black History Month Concerts in Louisville
WHAT: Fresh off his appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” Gangstagrass brings his unique combination of bluegrass and hip-hop to Louisville. The group has released six full-length albums with dozens of appearances on the Billboard Top 10 bluegrass charts. Gangstagrass tracks have featured Nitty Scott MC, Dead Prez, Demeanor, Kaia Kater and legendary rap team Smif-N-Wessun.
You may recognize Gangastagrass from the theme song “Long Hard Times to Come” featuring TONE-z which opened every episode of the FX show “Justified” and earned Gangstagrass a 2010 Emmy nomination for Best Theme Song.
OR: Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Road
WHEN: Friday February 25. Doors open at 7 p.m.
MORE INFORMATION: Headlinerslouisville.com
This article originally appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal: Black Violin at the Brown Theater: What to Know About the Louisville Show