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Paul Dateh: Hip-Hop Violinist Superhero by Night, Mild-Mannered Bookstore Clerk by Day 

In life and in music, he knows how to improvise

Wednesday, Sep 24 2008
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He’s the sweet, classically trained, violin-toting Japanese boy you imagine thugs would be beating on in the parking lot. Instead, outside after his show at Inglewood’s Savoy theater, Paul Dateh’s face hurts from smiling. He’s shaken hands and accepted compliments and business cards from people expressing interest in what he does and who he is, which is not just a violinist but a hip-hop violinist — essentially, an incongruity.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” the show’s host had told the audience, “except, it’s different shit.” Then the sound of Dateh’s wailing violin — rhythmic, surprising, new — filled the room. The music, classical, filtered through the aesthetic of funk and hip-hop, is exuberant. Dateh closed his eyes, a slight figure swaying onstage.

The band at the Savoy stopped playing. The drummer shook his head, mouthed the words “No way” to the keyboardist, who shook his head. The guitarist cupped his hands around his lips and whistled.

click to enlarge PHOTOGRAPH BY JESSICA MILLER - Paul Dateh
  • Photograph by Jessica Miller
  • Paul Dateh

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“Who is this guy?” a woman in the audience asked.

When Paul Dateh was ready to graduate to a serious instrument in 2001, Robert Cauer at Robert Cauer Violins laid several violins on a table. When you choose a serious violin, you are choosing a life mate. For his life as a classical violinist, Dateh chose a 19th-century Saquin, which has a clear, round, resonant, bright sound. Professional-quality violins can cost upward of $100,000 and you’d as likely play hip-hop on those as you’d drive a Bentley in a demolition derby.

So it’s the beat-up Tambovsky he used in high school that is now his best friend. It has a dark, rich, slightly muffled tone that matches well with Dateh’s butter-smooth, slightly breathy singing voice. Of all the instruments, the violin sounds most like the human voice. Dateh and his violin take turns speaking. He’s had it for a decade and when it’s not with him, he feels its absence, like the strange ache of a phantom limb.

The Tambovsky is with him a few weeks later, when he schleps over to Time Warp Music on Venice Boulevard, to try out some pedals. They’re for guitars, but he means to experiment with them on the violin, which he’s brought in a soft black nylon case, carrying it down low by his hip like an old-fashioned Mafia Gatling gun. The case is a body with organs: a cushiony endometrial black velvet lining, a small glass vial containing a thimbleful of water to moisten the air inside, a hygrometer, a clawlike nib to grasp the bow. Despite these fail-safes, a violin reacts to extremes of environment: Too hot or too cold, and you can hear its varnish cracking.

Attached to the violin, the wah-wah pedal produces a woozy, nasally, otherworldly gasp. Hendrix revolutionized guitar sound with the wah-wah, which mimics the human cry: waaaaaaaaaaaah! “This is so cool,” Dateh says. “I’m ashamed that I’ve been performing onstage for years and have never done pedals.”

“Don’t be ashamed,” says a customer who has stopped to listen. (Dateh’s playing tends to stop people in their tracks.) “Most folks go to the pedals right away. You’ve taken the time to master an acoustic instrument. Though there is something to be said for pedals. Have you seen Radiohead play? They’re literally on the floor fiddling with knobs.” Dateh obliges us with a version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.”

“Oh, my God,” the storeowner’s wife says. “Anything sounds virtuoso on a violin.”

Paul Dateh did not grow up in the hood. He is not ghetto-fabulous. He blogs about eating lettuce and accidentally gooping lotion instead of conditioner on his hair the first time he stayed out all night, which was at a show in Las Vegas, where he opened for Public Enemy. He grew up in Walnut, California, a sleepy bedroom-community suburb east of Los Angeles, a privileged neighborhood, two-thirds Asian, one-third white, average household income in the six figures. There is an ease to life in Walnut that makes him uncomfortable.

“This isn’t me,” he says, waving off the teenage-boy messy bedroom, the rumpled twin bed, the metal stand with a piece of sheet music, a jaunty oberek, which he’s been playing to keep up his finger work. “It’s just where I sleep.”

The struggles of youth in upper-middle-class suburbia are not the problems of life on the street romanticized in hip-hop but the quiet, strangling ennui of a life measured out in cul de sacs and carpeted rooms and identical tract homes.

He is crashing there at his parents’ place, an hour’s drive from the Little Tokyo district, where he hopes to live in a few months. “I’m carving notches on the wall until then,” he sighs. “It’s hard when you see cows and freight trains.”

Dateh, who has perfect pitch, pedals back and forth between worlds of sound, hearing what colors sound like, or smells or memories. Cupping his hands around a mug of green tea at a table outside the Starbucks a block from the house he refuses to call his home, shivering in his Run DMC T-shirt, with obnoxious pop music blaring on the loudspeakers, he hears a train approaching. The engine of the train is a D-natural, which sharpens into a whining E as the train approaches. The horn blowing as it rushes by is a B-major triad with a G-sharp on top, happy yet unsettling. To Dateh, the train’s noise is a kind of poetry.

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