Few performers, or even large orchestras, can make the violin sing quite like the Sons of Mystro, whose eccentric musicality broadens the horizons of what genres can be performed with a classical string instrument.
Virtuosos Malcolm and Umoja McNeish push the bow of their violins to play hip-hop, pop, reggae and other genres of music that are not usually performed by a violin.
The Florida-raised brothers are set to perform at 8:15 p.m. Friday, July 1, in the Amphitheater for a performance of modern hits, as well as an improvised piece.
The duo’s name comes from their father’s career in music; during the ’70s and into the ’90s, their father performed as DJ Mystro.
“Our pops never got to see us perform in our school because he used to be a taxi driver, … but one day our mom said, ‘You gotta go see them,’ ” Umoja McNeish said. “So he went to see us perform at a talent show in seventh grade. And when he saw it, a light bulb came up in his head. He decided to make a group and call us Sons of Mystro.”
The duo was inspired by the Chautauqua-favorite violin and viola duo, Black Violin, known for electrifying performances and unique blends of classical, hip-hop and R&B music.
When Umoja McNeish was in third grade, his first year playing the violin, his county held a benefit concert for a teacher who had passed. It was held at the high school that Black Violin attended, and the concert was being held in honor of their teacher. This was the first time Sons of Mystro heard Black Violin.
“The next thing you know, we start hearing hip-hop music being played on the violin and the viola. Now mind you, we were kids. … This was my first year playing, and Malcolm’s third year playing (violin). We didn’t know what was possible,” Umoja McNeish said.
He was so enthralled by the performance, he went backstage to meet the artists.
“The only thing I could say is, ‘I wanna play just like you,’ and they said, ‘Well, you got to practice, practice, practice,’ ” Umoja McNeish said.
And so they did. The pair went home and watched Black Violin’s 2005 Apollo Amateur Night performance on YouTube and attempted to follow along with their instruments. Since hip-hop and reggae music were not written as sheet music for the violin at the time, the brothers learned to play by ear.
“Without Black Violin, I honestly probably wouldn’t be playing the violin as a career right now,” Malcolm McNeish said. “It was an eye-opening experience.”
Umoja McNeish feels differently about what their future would be without Black Violin. With their father’s background as a DJ and their mother’s guidance toward creative expression through music, he felt performing was inevitable — they would have found their way to performing, and “even if it wasn’t the violin, it would have been something else.”
And it almost wasn’t the violin. Malcolm McNeish, the older brother of the pair, had nearly joined the school’s band and played the flute in third grade rather than the violin. But something changed his mind — the chance to go on a field trip to Disney World with the orchestra.
“I actually didn’t get to go (on a trip) until my 10th grade year of high school, … but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “I’m thankful I didn’t play the flute because it would be a completely different story.”
Umoja McNeish followed his brother in pursuing the violin because he wanted to play with him. But, performing in the music industry has not always been easy for the pair.
“We’ve been through a lot. People have promised us certain things (that then fall through). We had to deal with the respect factor, as far as people respecting our craft,” Malcolm McNeish said.
In high school, the budding musicians had to balance classes, extracurriculars and perfecting their craft. They also struggled during the pandemic as they learned how to share their music online.
“(The pandemic) was a real challenge for us as well, but it created a lot of room for growth. … We learned how to play at our worst, and make our worst sound amazing,” Umoja McNeish said.
Sons of Mystro hopes to impact its audience and the future generation in a positive way.
“Personally, I’m not that focused on the Grammys and things of that nature, unless getting that helps us affect more people in a positive way,” Umoja McNeish said. “My main intent is to create an experience for people to go to that gives them a sense of clarity in life … and to inspire the children to secure a better life for themselves.”
At nearly every stop on their tours, the brothers try to go to local schools to host events for students. The duo plays a variety of genres at these workshops to combat stereotypes about what a violinist can play.
Sons of Mystro have always been managed by their father, DJ Mystro, and the group is complete with their childhood friend, DJ Venimis, who is the DJ behind their songs.
During tonight’s performance, they will be accompanied by a percussionist that goes by Junior.
First-time viewers can expect “to get up and dance; no questions asked. It is going to be an engaging, electrifying performance that makes them feel a part of what is happening,” Malcolm McNeish said.
Beyond experiencing the riffs and flows of the music, Umoja McNeish hopes the audience will take away meaning from the performance. He wants to impart the message “to be positive, to think outside of the box, to be true to yourself, be a good person, and put out good energy.”