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Duo uses eclectic mix of genres to bring artistry of violins to new ears

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Black Violin will perform at 7 p.m. June 27 at the revamped Bartholomew County Library Plaza in Columbus.
Black Violin will perform at 7 p.m. June 27 at the revamped Bartholomew County Library Plaza in Columbus.

Black Violin will perform at 7 p.m. June 27 at the revamped Bartholomew County Library Plaza in Columbus.
Black Violin will perform at 7 p.m. June 27 at the revamped Bartholomew County Library Plaza in Columbus.

As a teenager in the 1990s, Wil Baptiste heard one element clearly amid the fast and furious lyrical cadence of hip hop music and its pulsating beat.

A viola melody.

Not that artists such as Tupac were tipping their hat to Tchaikovsky, mind you. It’s just that the Miami native had one ear to the radio and another to his imagination.

“No one else would hear it, but I would try to imitate it,” said Baptiste, speaking by phone from his home in Atlanta.

Such were the early roots of Black Violin, an innovative, decade-old duo blending hip hop and classical music in a marriage that has allowed them to work with artists ranging from 50 Cent to Aretha Franklin.

Baptiste and violinist Kev Sylvester will perform a free concert at 7 p.m. June 27 to celebrate the reopening of the Bartholomew County Public Library Plaza, 536 Fifth St. in Columbus. The pair took their name from an album title of jazz violinist Stuff Smith.

“We’re still doing something that’s considered pretty different,” Baptiste said. “It’s something that grabs the listener. At our show — a very high-energy show — you can bring your grandmother and you can bring the kids.”

More than one music critic has noted that they sometimes bow on their instruments like a traditional orchestra member, sometimes strum them like pop artists and other times pluck them like harps. Whatever their approach, they know how to make their strings sing.

And they blend music of yesterday and today with a layering that’s difficult to describe. Songs such as “Brandenburg” open with a Bach concerto and a minute later detour into hip-hop record scratches and a heavy, boombox beat.

“Even though classical and hip-hop certainly are two completely different worlds, our music speaks to all,” Baptiste said. “We’re conveying a message that these two worlds can have a conversation now. And that conversation is Black Violin.”

Because of that variety in both culture and age, Baptiste mentioned that none of their concert audience members ever look much alike.

Nor do their projects look alike.

In October, they’re performing a Florida concert with a full, 70-piece orchestra. But they’ve also provided tracks for Grammy-nominated rap artists such as Lupe Fiasco and for television shows such as “CSI: New York.”

Columbus Indiana Philharmonic violinist Vanessa Edwards appreciates their mix. She attended a Black Violin concert in Bloomington last year with Philharmonic executive director Margaret Powers. Baptiste and Sylvester will work with students at the orchestra’s upcoming strings camp.

“They are definitely different and fun,” Edwards said. “And I’m so excited for the kids to hear them.”

Although the duo has a good working relationship with orchestras, Baptiste brings to some symphonies a message that’s as in-your-face as an intense rap.

“How do you expect a younger audience or an ethnic audience or a person of color like me to appreciate this wonderful art that’s been around for 400 years when you’ve never reached out to me?” he said.

Locally, the Philharmonic has reached out regularly to the minority community. For instance, the predominantly black Faith Hope and Love Church of God in Christ in Elizabethtown has, at the ensemble’s invitation, brought its youth group to concerts.

Baptiste originally intended a life in a different groove. As a 14-year-old in Miami, he signed up for a sax class at his school for the performing arts so he could play weekend gigs. But he was placed in a viola classroom instead.

“I had never even seen a viola or violin up close before,” he said. “That just wasn’t my world.”

But once he was exposed to music of composers such as Russia’s Dmitri Shostakovich, he got lost in his new world.

“Listening to his music and how his music relates to his personal story was amazing,” Baptiste said.

Black Violin will aim their new disc for early 2015, although the focus and material have not yet been decided. It also may feature a well-known hip-hop artist or two. But the duo which has performed for such luminaries as President Obama and the first lady consistently remind audiences that their mission stretches well beyond music.

“If you go pick up a violin, that’s great,” Baptiste said. “But that’s not the point of our show.

“The point is to learn to think outside the box and take something you have a passion for — it could be music, art, science — and take it to a whole new level.”

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