In Portland, cello players lay down a hip-hop beat

Fri Jun 1, 2012 6:01pm EDT
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By Courtney Garcia

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The people of Portland, Oregon enjoy a reputation for living somewhat outside the mainstream, so it should come as no surprise that a group of the city's cello players is using its classical instruments to lay down hip-hop beats.

What rappers such as Kanye West and Jay-Z do with syncopated rhymes and rhythms, the Portland Cello Project bangs out with strings and bows. And they don't stop there. Pop tunes from Britney Spears' "Toxic" to Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around" also bring cheer to their fans.

"It just seemed like the natural thing," Doug Jenkins, a founding member of the band told Reuters. "We began stumbling around trying to find the most fun or confusing songs to perform on the cello to play with people's perceptions."

Now on national tour to promote their new album "Homage," which was released this past Tuesday, the collective aims to challenge the conventions of their instrumental classification.

Portland Cello Project formed six years ago as a loose group of cellists who kept bumping into each other around town and decided it only made sense to hang out, drink beer and jam. Eclectic in background and taste, some brought indie rock sensibilities to the table, others clung to jazz and folk.

After playing in each other's living rooms, they went live in their first public gig in 2006 at a local lounge. Rather than perform something expected like Beethoven - they did what any good-natured Portlander would do - they opted for Spears and over time became a local sensation.

Seizing on their celebrity, the crew of about 10-20 rotating members then branched into hip-hop, making symphonic arrangements out of songs like West's "All of the Lights," Jay-Z and West's collaborative "H.A.M" and Lil Wayne's "Lollipop."

"Hip-hop right now is the most vibrant American cultural art form," said Jenkins. "Like it or not, it sells a lot of records, and is extremely influential. It was also a challenge because these songs aren't obvious musical compositions. They have really fascinating productions behind them."   Continued...

Members of the Portland Cello Project are shown in this publicity photo released to Reuters May 31, 2012. Imagining pop music's most notable records as Baroque-style sonatas, the Oregon-based band of instrumentalists has fashioned a creative niche that forges through genres to bridge the outlandish with the sophisticated. Now on national tour to promote their new album, "Homage," out Tuesday, the collective aims to challenge the restrictions of their instrumental classification. REUTERS/Tarina Westlund/Handout