Gospel Choir Childhood And Classical Training Lead This Kansas City Musician To A Worldly Mash-Up | KCUR

Gospel Choir Childhood And Classical Training Lead This Kansas City Musician To A Worldly Mash-Up

Aug 11, 2019

To underline that music really is the universal language, a classically trained violinist from Kansas City, Kansas, has blended musical languages on her first solo recording.

Musician Katina Bilberry, known on stage as K’Tina (pronounced Kay Tina), had an epiphany on a visit to Kenya during her time as an undergraduate at William Jewell College.

She had decided to go on a safari. But as she marvelled at the zebras, lions, and elephants across the grassland, suddenly a rhythmic rain beat against the van's top. Not long after, the vehicle jolted to a stop. They'd hit an enourmous mud puddle.

"No matter who we were or where we came from, we came together to come out of that pothole. It sounds so insignificant, but it is significant because of how it brought us together," Bilberry says.

She started thinking about how music is the universal language, and reasoned that if a pothole could join a group of strangers from every background, certainly music could as well.

That is what she has tried to do with her five-song solo debut, called "Crossed Conversations," available on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

Bilberry earned a master's in violin performance at the University of Kansas, but her learning did not start or stop in Lawrence. Her interest in many cultures carried over to various styles of music: gospel, jazz, reggae, tango and even a little bluegrass. Each time she's travelled abroad, mostly through school programs, she's studied the music of the locals.

In Argentina, she formally studied tango music but also jammed with new friends she met in town. Through music, she says, the world opened to her — and she hopes to do the same for her listeners.

"I wanted to kind of cross the genres and put them together in one place so they communicate with each other, so people can see we really are more alike than we are apart," Bilberry says.

In Kansas City, she regularly plays with multi-instrumentalist Amado Espinoza and an Argentine tango ban called Cucharada and has recorded EPs with both of them. She's also recorded with her three sisters in a gospel quartet called Yielded Vessels, as well as with Johnny Hamil's project GAV7D.

Finding like-minded artists from a mix of disciplines was not difficult for her. For a song called "Sweet Dreams," she worked with Espinoza and Haitian musician Guy Montes.

"I wanted to do a lullaby, so I did some research on some familiar tunes that would work out with some native instruments, and I found I could mix some Afro-Caribbean-style beats with a New Zealand tune that I really liked," Bilberry explains.

The resulting sound, she says, is a "fusion of different spaces and places put together in one sweet lullaby — and it's sung in three languages."

She's been thrilled to see a demand for her brand of mash-up.

"I found that there's a hunger and a thirst for what I do. I didn't realize how thirsty people are for something new, different, and tasteful at the same time," she says.

Aside from bringing diverse groups together with her singing and playing, the most important part of her work is the idea of creating "tasteful" music, Bilberry says.

She says she wants the recording to offer something to every member of a family. To her, that means no content that is oversexualized or demeaning to anyone.

"I wanted to create something that mothers would want their daughters to hear, and fathers wouldn’t mind their sons listening to," says Bilberry, who teaches music at a private school, working with kids from preschool through eighth grade.

It was her large, musical family (she’s one of eight children) that shaped her.

Bilberry practiced her singing first in a children’s gospel choir called the Sunshine Band at Madden Temple, Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, Kansas, then, during college, toured with Yielded Vessels.

She says she would have been happy to stay in the background with her violin when she played with her sisters, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

Of her voice, she says one of her sisters told her: “If it’s a God-given gift you need to develop it.”

And so she has.

Katina Bilberry spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.