Sudan Archives bows to no one with her violin-fueled mix of neo-soul, West African music and more

Genre-leaping singer-songwriter Sudan Archives writes all of her songs on violin, an instrument she started playing as a kid in church and in a fiddle club.
Genre-leaping singer-songwriter Sudan Archives writes all of her songs on violin, an instrument she started playing as a kid in church and in a fiddle club.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The genre-leaping music maverick will perform a sold-out San Diego concert Saturday at The Casbah


What did acclaimed violinist, singer, songwriter and electronics beat maker Sudan Archives do after having an international breakout year in 2019?

“Whoo! I actually just started getting violin lessons! I never had them before and thought it would be cool to get them,” said the 25-year-old Archives (real name: Brittney Parks), who performs a sold-out concert Saturday at The Casbah on a winter tour that includes concerts in Toronto, London and at the annual Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tenn.

“I hate practicing scales,” she continued, speaking by phone Thursday, as she traveled to a gig in Santa Barbara. “So we play all this stuff I love to listen to and my teacher makes sheet music for it for me.”

A Cincinnati native who lives in Los Angeles, Archives released one of last year’s most audacious debut albums, “Athena.” It’s a beguiling showcase for her distinctive and proudly left-of-center songs, which draw from — and re-configure — elements of R&B, electronica, hip-hop, West African music, trip-hop, psychedelia and more, in fresh intriguing ways.

The violin helps her stand out, sonically and visually, and she uses it in a variety of intriguing ways. Her love affair with the instrument has several sources.

They include: the church choir she played the instrument in as a kid; a fiddle club she belonged to that taught her “Swallowtail Jig” and other traditional Irish tunes; and, in particular, Miri-Ben Ari, the Israeli-born jazz sensation whose 2005 album, “The Hip-Hop Violinist,” made a big impression on the then-10-year-old Archives.

“I didn’t practice to get to Carnegie Hall; I practiced to get to the ‘hood,” Ben-ari said in a 2005 Union-Tribune interview. “The kids do listen to me. More than that, they’re picking up instruments. They write to me that I inspired them, and that I made live instruments cool again.”

Sudan Archives, shown above on stage at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, will perform Saturday at The Casbah in San Diego.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Miri was the first violinist I saw of color who was her own (one-woman) act and was cool,” Archives recalled. “She was the sound of R&B hip-hop and she made a huge impression on me. That was the first time I saw a young woman violinist, apart from an orchestra member.”

What about jazz violin great Regina Carter?

“I love Regina Carter!” Archives said.

“She’s probably one of the first (female) violinists, besides Miri, that I saw. I was going to have a violin lesson with Regina recently, but the timing didn’t work out. I’m a big jazz fan and I really like jazz sax players, like John Coltrane, because it gives me ideas on how to solo on violin.”

Carter is a 2006 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient. She is as adept playing her own compositions as she is music by Paganini, Ravel, Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams or top Malian blues guitarist-singer Boubacar Traoré.

“It’s all equal to me,” Carter said in a 2017 Union-Tribune interview. “It’s like all of them are part of one language. Of course, I understand the differences between them and would never say that I’m a ‘this kind’ of player or a ‘that kind’ of player. You have to delve into the culture of each of them. If it’s something I love, I really take the time to research it.”

Asked what kind of violin player she is, Archives replied: “I would say I’m a fiddle-style violin player. I’m trying to be more like Regina Carter. That’s why I’m getting lessons now, because I want to enhance my classical chops and learn some jazz and some Chinese erhu violin music. What makes the connection for me is a lot of this music uses pentatonic scales. When people say my music sounds Irish or Chinese, it’s because they use the same scales. And a lot of gospel music and spirituals used pentatonic scales. All my songs are based on pentatonic scales”

In concert, Archives performs as a one-woman band, looping her violin parts over electronic beats to create a pulsating rhythmic foundation that has quirky instrumental accents and unexpected twists. She sings in a light, airy voice, adding contrapuntal violin lines and solos that can be earthy one moment, ethereal the next. Her lyrics are inspired by everything from relationships and voice mail messages to verses from the bible and issues of race and class.

“When I write songs, it always begins with a violin,” Archives said.

“Because I don’t really know how to write any other way. The violin is the base of the song, all the time. Sometimes I get cool percussion parts and will layer that with electric drones. Then, I’ll end with the bass line. But it all starts with the violin. And I’m always thinking: ‘Can I do this live?’ I’m always making sure there’s a cool back-and-forth thing — ‘Here’s the violin part; here’s the singing part’ — so it looks and sounds cool on stage.

“I really do want to get a band together and be able to improvise with other people. It’s really hard to get a band together and get into a groove. That will take time, but I’m really looking forward to that. This album, ‘Athena,’ is supposed to be the raw version of me talking about some naked stuff, like — Wow! — life and relations. The next album, I envision as more dance-y. I mean, my music is already dance-able. But I’m thinking of house music and R&B, and a live drummer.”

Sudan Archives, with Velvet Negroni

When: 9:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., Middletown

Tickets: Sold out