A basement bar and pool hall where a bright neon sign touts “$1 Massage” is the last place you’d expect to find a home-schooled classical string ensemble. But the JoSunJari String Trio is used to popping up in unexpected places – like parks and beaches – where their music is like a random gift bestowed upon you by a stranger.
Very poised and accomplished strangers.
David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.
Joelle, Sunnaj and Sujari Britt have been playing as a trio for five years, though music has been a constant backdrop in their west Harlem home. Their parents, Janice and Sunfree, both loved music – she played piano, while he composed and played the flute and violin. So when they decided to home-school their children, they made it part of their routine, starting them off with pianos and guitars, then moving on to violins.
“It’s what we do,” Ms. Britt said. “We are committed to their development. Music was just a part of that, though it may be a central part at this stage. You decide where you are going and you just make it happen.”
Their performance career kind of flowed from that. Five years ago the family was at Rockaway Beach, where the children took a break from playing by practicing their music. A crowd gathered. People liked it. A new routine – and trio – was born, as the kids began practicing in the park.
“It’s an easy way to relate to an audience,” Ms. Britt said. “Folks are going to stop and listen. And it’s more fun than practicing at home. We can do a practice session, then we can play.”
This is not a lark. Sujari, 10, and Sunnaj, 14, are in a weekend conservatory program at the Manhattan School of Music. Joelle, 19, studied at Juilliard and is now enrolled at New York University. They have played concert halls and cathedrals. Sujari – who took up the cello because “there were too many violins in the family” – has performed at the White House.
Monday night, the siblings set up at Fat Cat, a music-loving West Village pool hall the Britts had discovered over the summer. As they tuned their instruments and checked their sheet music, a sound man adjusted the microphones.
The mood was relaxed. Just past a few rows of plump, worn sofas, young men and women hunched over pool tables, while on the sidelines, people played ping-pong or shuffleboard. A few couples were deep in chess games and conversations. One was deep into each other, smooching in a booth.
The trio launched into their first of three sets, starting with their own arrangement of Brahms A-Minor Quartet. They played with grace and joy, undistracted by the bouncing ping-pong balls that sounded like an off-kilter metronome. A few people, drinks in hand, wandered over to the couches, settled in and intently watched the siblings. Others stayed hunched over the pool tables, though a few glanced over.
The trio exchanged quick smiles and cues.
“We’re used to people walking by us,” Joelle said between sets. “We’ve done venues when we’ve been the main event. But in places like this, it helps your concentration. It’s harder when people don’t pay attention to you. They may only just look at you once, so you always have to be great. And you learn to focus on your sound.”
Monday was the second time the trio played at Fat Cat, which has made a habit of offering musical programs to school groups during the day and hosts an Afro-Latin youth band on Sundays.
“We’re incredibly lucky to get them,” said Benjamin Gee, Fat Cat’s general manager. “That’s how a lot of good things happen. Luck. Now everybody loves them.”
A few clusters of people had settled into the sofas to listen. At one point, they launched into a spirited rendition of the Estudiantina Waltz. Considering the venue, it was fitting – it’s the same tune better known to a generation of New Yorkers as the Rheingold Beer jingle.
When they reached the end of their final set, they were rewarded with warm applause. They stood up, instruments in hand, and bowed. Deeply.
And then, smiling, they hugged their parents.