Genre-Busting Composer D.B. Roumain

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Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain melds many genres in his ground-breaking work. Roumain's work for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will be heard this weekend in New York City.

ED GORDON, host:

Many composers stay within the realm of a certain type of music, whether it's variations of jazz or deftly twisting traditional classical music into their own vision. Then there's Daniel Bernard Roumain. His vision spans a dizzying array of genres. NPR's Allison Keyes has this profile.

(Soundbite of unidentified Daniel Bernard Roumain composition)

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Daniel Bernard Roumain's compositions are deep and rich, with layers of flavor that caress your tongue like a glass of red Bordeaux. So are his eyes, especially when he talks about his music. His first instrument, at age five, was the violin.

Mr. DANIEL BERNARD ROUMAIN (Composer): Sometimes instruments choose you. I was really drawn to it, you know? To me it was the--it was just the coolest thing, you know--the instrument, playing the instrument, the sou--as you said, the sounds that it makes, the screaming, the guttural sounds.

(Soundbite of unidentified Daniel Bernard Roumain composition)

Mr. ROUMAIN: A lot of my friends were in rock bands and garage bands. Everybody played drums, piano, guitar, keyboards. I mean, everybody was multi-instrumental. Everybody loved songs. Everybody sang. So I just started doing what everybody else was doing.

(Soundbite of "Hip Hop Study")

KEYES: Roumain is described on his Web site as Beethoven meets Lenny Kravitz. His compositions often have titles like "Hip Hop Study" in D minor, which you hear in the background. He's often lauded for his ability to weave a musical tapestry of hip-hop and classical themes.

Mr. ROUMAIN: You know, it's a language. Like, my parents are from Haiti. They speak French fluently. They speak Creole fluently. Very different. The fact is, my mother, she really gets worked up--she--and one sentence might contain English, French and Creole seamlessly put together, you know, and it's something new.

KEYES: Roumain is 32 and says people his age grew up listening to constantly changing soundtracks comprised of many different kinds of music. Besides, he says, the blending of classical and hip-hop a la the Wu-Tang Clan, Johann Strauss and Carl Orff, has been going on a long time. He just reversed it and writes pieces where an orchestra, string quartet or violin can rock.

(Soundbite of "Voodoo" Violin Concerto #1)

KEYES: Roumain says his "Voodoo" Violin Concerto #1 is one of his favorite compositions.

Mr. ROUMAIN: It does have to do with speaking the language, you know? So I think some composers have tried to look at hip-hop, tried to look at jazz, and they fail because they don't really speak the language. Stravinsky failed at trying to use jazz. Debussy certainly failed at trying to incorporate jazz and ragtime into his music. I hope I'm getting it right. I certainly grew up listening to hip-hop. I certainly grew up listening to classical and playing classical music. I feel like I speak both languages. I got my ear to the ground, you know? I'm trying to keep it real. I'm trying to be a responsible and educated composer.

KEYES: This Haitian-American with his coffee-and-cream complexion and dreadlocks cascading nearly to his waist often offers very intense interpretations of the creative process. Take his composition "Segregation Song."

(Soundbite of "Segregation Song")

KEYES: One version is instrumental.

Mr. ROUMAIN: It also exists as a song with lyrics. The chorus is, `Sometimes I feel like they might tie me up, chain me up, drag me down a dirt road hanging out of the back of a pickup truck. And as the pieces of me are ripped from my black body, in these times I do believe in my own segregation.' So the song, yeah, it's about James Byrd. It's about that. It was about Trent Lott at the time. Remember that? His use of that word for the implication of segregation, how things would have been better, would have been different, you know? He went from hero to--well, maybe to martyr, I think, for some people.

(Soundbite of "Segregation Song")

KEYES: Among many other things, Daniel Bernard Roumain is a musical director and principal composer for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. The depth of the music he writes for the 25-year-old organization all but creates a picture frame around the stylized movements of the dancers in pieces like "Joan's Work,"(ph) "Reading," "Mercy" and "The Artificial (Censored)."

(Soundbite of unidentified Daniel Bernard Roumain score)

KEYES: For the piece, Roumain created music to illustrate Jones' vision of it as a story of forgiveness, not race.

Mr. ROUMAIN: I created what I thought was my take on a Protestant hymn, a very simple scalular succession of notes. And from this very simple melodic idea, the entire score is generated--the entire 45-minute score.

(Soundbite of unidentified Daniel Bernard Roumain score)

Mr. ROUMAIN: Almost like a movie composer--you know, it changes, it modulates, it's a canvas.

KEYES: Roumain says if he can create something he's never heard before and people want to hear it, then he might have a successful track.

(Soundbite of unidentified Daniel Bernard Roumain score)

KEYES: He will join the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company this weekend at Aaron Davis Hall.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of unidentified Daniel Bernard Roumain score)

GORDON: That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of unidentified Daniel Bernard Roumain score)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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