Daniel Bernard Roumain's 'Dred Violin' Daniel Bernard Roumain doesn't fit the image of a classical musician. The Haitian-American violinist and composer, who sports a silver nose ring and dreadlocks, was inspired by jazz, rock and hip-hop. He dubs his style "dred violin."
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Daniel Bernard Roumain's 'Dred Violin'

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Daniel Bernard Roumain's 'Dred Violin'

Daniel Bernard Roumain's 'Dred Violin'

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SIEGEL: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

BLOCK: Last month I went to New York to visit the violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. He lives in a small studio apartment in Harlem. I listened in as he warmed up on one of his many violins.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

BLOCK: Roumain likes pushing the violin to places it might not really want to go. He likes playing way up on top of the bridge.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

BLOCK: Daniel Bernard Roumain is 34 years old. He's got a silver nose ring and dreadlocks that reach to his waist. He's Haitian-American, he's classically trained, but he gets just as much inspiration, maybe more, from jazz, rock, and hip hop.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

BLOCK: A black composer is a rarity in the world of classical music. Roumain has coined a name for his style, where dreadlocks meet fingerboard. He calls it dread violin.

Mr. DANIEL BERNARD ROUMAIN (Composer, violinist): For some people, the notion of what the violin represents and its history has nothing to do with what I represent. This kind of, well, dred violin, right, which to me really means more than black and white. It means a mixing, a mixture, literally. I play a violin that has, well, essentially a guitar pick up on it.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

Mr. ROUMAIN: What I set out to do was make the violin more reflective of who I am and what I'm into. You know, I'm not necessarily totally convinced about --

(Soundbite of Roumain playing Beethoven)

Mr. ROUMAIN: I mean I wish I could do that better even.

BLOCK: When you say you're not convinced about that, what do you mean?

Mr. ROUMAIN: I'm not convinced that that is the only thing that I can or should do or should have even been taught to do on the violin. You know, where does my culture, my history, it's a very selfish thing, right? Where does blackness come in to play in the violin? And more than that, where does hip hop come in?

(Soundbite of DBR & THE MISSION)

BLOCK: This is Roumain's nine-piece band, DBR & THE MISSION, which includes a string quartet, a rhythm section, and a DJ who beat boxes and scratches.

(Soundbite of DBR & THE MISSION)

BLOCK: Roumain has a broad range. Here's one of his string quartets.

(Soundbite of string quartet)

BLOCK: He's also written electronica.

(Soundbite of electronic music)

BLOCK: And a piece for chamber ensemble is called Fast Black Dance Machine.

(Soundbite of Fast Black Dance Machine)

BLOCK: Roumain was raised in south Florida. He started playing violin when he was five, did graduate studies under the Pulitzer Prize winning composer William Bolcom. Now he has big name collaborators, including the minimalist composer Phillip Glass, and Choreographer Bill T. Jones. And he's got 10 commissions lined up right now, including a guitar concerto for the virtuoso Eliot Fisk and a laptop concerto.


Ms. RIKA IINO (DBR Music Productions): Hey, what's up? How are you?

Mr. ROUMAIN: All right, good.

BLOCK: Roumain meets up with his partner in DBR Music Productions, Rika Iino to talk business at her apartment, which doubles as her office. He proudly shows her a copy of the magazine Chamber Music America. His band, DBR and the Mission has signed with the agency ICM and in the magazine, there's a photo of him on ICM's full-page artist roster.

Ms. IINO: Oh there you are.

Mr. ROUMAIN: That's what I was trying to show you, check that out.

Ms. IINO: That's great; oh they didn't spell THE MISSION right.

Mr. ROUMAIN: I know.

Ms. IINO: No matter how many times I tell people.

Mr. ROUMAIN: All capitals.

Ms. IINO: DBR & THE MISSION is all capital.

Mr. ROUMAIN: I know.

BLOCK: Roumain and Iino sweat those little details because branding is partly responsible for his success. They've just got his new business card. It's bright red, with a black and white photo of Roumain, his dreadlocks swirling around his violin bow. It's a compelling image. On his Web site, on his business card, Roumain condenses his name into a snappy abbreviation, DBR. They've created a logo, a funky dreadlocked stick figure that looks like graffiti.

I can't think of any other classical composer who markets throw pillows, sweatshirts, and thong underwear with his logo on them. It's all part of the DBR brand that Rika Iino helped create.

Ms. IINO: One of the challenges we've had was to find a way to describe his work in a very simple way and to attach an image to it. I think popular music does this by default, but classical music doesn't, so it ranges everything from business card to Web site, to press kit, everything having a one streamlined strategy and image. That's why I have nightmares about you cutting your dreadlocks, because that's part of the brand.

Mr. ROUMAIN: We'll make that an event. I'll probably make a whole piece around it.

BLOCK: Do you worry about the image becoming overpowering? Do you think about cutting your dreadlocks?

Ms. IINO: I think he does. I think the hair serves as an entry point because an image is everything for a lot of people, especially younger people. So far, we haven't overused it, I think.

Mr. ROUMAIN: Hype has an exceedingly small lifespan. After that, you have to bring the goods. You have to have the work behind it.

BLOCK: And Roumain thinks his best work yet is his fifth string quartet. He finished it last month. It was commissioned by the Lark Quartet. In one movement, the members have to clap.

ROUMAIN: I tried to pick my brain, is there another string quartet that I know of that the players clap their hands. Now one could say, well, is there a string quartet where the players take a bath, you know. I understand these things, but what I'm saying is that clapping your hands, I'd like to think that, you know, when we were Cro-Magnon somewhere, there were people clapping their hands and making music. And certainly, in the clubs right now, people clap their hands. There's something really communal about that and I'm proud of that. I love the fact that I think, the way I've composed it in this piece, that when the large string quartet is asked to clapped their hands, that there will be that great passion, you know, that great letting go, letting the hair down.

(Soundbite of Lark practice)

BLOCK: The Lark String Quartet, all women, is sight-reading Daniel Bernard Roumain's String Quartet No. 5. And the composer has come to hear his quartet played for the first time. The last movement is called Klap UR Handz: that's Klap with a K, U-R, then Handz with a Z.

BLOCK: And then Klap UR Handz, anything you want to tell us about that.

Mr. ROUMAIN: It's from, it's from hip hop music. These are real to me, Black-American contemporary rhythms.

(Soundbite of Lark practice)

BLOCK: The players experiment with how they can hold onto their instruments and clap their hands at the same time.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can tell the women are having fun, they groove in their chairs. In fact, they decide they'll perform this piece standing up, so they can get more physical. They smile as they figure out the rhythms and notes and Daniel Bernard Roumain is smiling, too, hearing his work come to life. He's a curious mix of big ego and big insecurity. Earlier in the day, he told me he tries to keep in mind the advice of one of his mentors, the composer Joan Tower.

Mr. ROUMAIN: I'm anxious all the time. You know, I just feel like, you know, I'm ready for the movie, you know, I'm ready for Broadway, New York Philharmonic, oh I'm ready for these things, I'm ready. Joan Tower, when she first met me said, you know, you're very impatient and you need to be patient. She was absolutely right.

BLOCK: Daniel Bernard Roumain's schedule is full. Over the next year, his various commitments will take him to Brazil, Melbourne, Australia, Vermillion, South Dakota, and a high school in Ossining, New York. Broadway and the New York Philharmonic, not yet.

(Soundbite of Lark practice)

BLOCK: You can hear more of Daniel Bernard Roumain's music, including his band playing his Hip hop Study and A-Tude in C Sharp Minor at our website, NPR.org.

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