City Beat

Sacramento violinist sails past musical, cultural borders

Violinist and looper Joe Kye leaving Sacramento

Violinist and looper Joe Kye talks about his music and plays one original piece and his cover of "Tell Me Something Good." The Korean-born Kye is moving to Portland after a three-year stay in Sacramento. See the accompanying column by Ryan Lillis.
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Violinist and looper Joe Kye talks about his music and plays one original piece and his cover of "Tell Me Something Good." The Korean-born Kye is moving to Portland after a three-year stay in Sacramento. See the accompanying column by Ryan Lillis.

Two days before presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was scheduled to rally at Bonney Field in May, local promoter Jerry Perry called a 29-year-old violinist and asked him if he wanted to perform.

For Joe Kye, a politically thoughtful and engaged guy, the gig was perfect. It wasn’t like playing in a bar or music venue, where people go to escape.

“This was something like 20,000 people united in expression and a desire to make the world more empathetic,” Kye said.

Kye, 29, is a lot of things. He’s a Yale-educated immigrant whose family moved to the United States from Seoul when he was 6. He’s a guitar-playing, a cappella-singing violinist, who graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle, the school that produced Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones and rapper Macklemore. He’s a self-described “Star Wars-ian Buddha-Christian” who plays every Sunday in a Methodist church.

He has many thoughts on politics and thoughts on many religions. He likes the love of Christianity, the balance of Buddhism and says Islam “does justice really well.” He calls music his “personal public therapy.”

“It helps to heal myself,” he said last week at The Table United Methodist Church in East Sacramento. “I sincerely want my music to question people’s understanding of the world and help them understand different viewpoints. Music breaks down borders and boundaries.”

Kye picked up the violin in fourth grade, and by 16 he was writing songs. He started dabbling in jazz singing during his senior year at Garfield and was in an a cappella group at Yale.

His sophomore year in college, Kye began experimenting with the musical style he’s best known for in Sacramento. It’s called “looping” and it involves Kye recording segments of his performance, then layering those segments on top of one another. A single violinist suddenly becomes a full-blown band, with Kye working his violin bow, strumming the strings with his fingers and singing in one mesmerizing symphony.

Kye released his first album last year and has a new live album available now on his website, www.joekye.com. He’s planning a world tour next year.

After three years in Sacramento, Kye and his wife, Natasha, are moving to Portland, Ore., next month. Natasha is finishing her residency at UC Davis Medical Center and has landed her first job as an attending physician at a hospital in Portland.

He has a few shows left here in the area. He’ll play in the Sacramento Zoo’s outdoor concert series Thursday. He is scheduled to hit the Davis Music Fest on Sunday and will appear at the California WorldFest in Grass Valley in July.

As Kye gets ready to leave Sacramento, he said he’s grateful for all that the city’s burgeoning arts scene has provided him. It’s a collaborative scene, where a violinist whose work is nontraditional can play to a packed Crest Theatre with the Sacramento Ballet, as Kye did last summer.

And like many other young artists, Kye was able to groom his work in Sacramento the past few years and not get drowned out by the crowd.

“Sacramento has taught me so much,” said the guy who seems to know a lot already.

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