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Kids learn about musical instruments after Sweet Plantain performance

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Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 12:08 am | Updated: 10:34 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — A different kind of petting zoo was enjoyed by children attending an outreach performance by the Sweet Plantain quartet at the North Pole Grange Wednesday.

The objects they “petted” weren’t soft and furry to the touch, and most emitted high-pitched squeaky sounds when first approached.

The children didn’t mind the discord, sounding much like an orchestra tuning up. They eagerly wrapped their hands and fingers around violins, violas and cellos, with wands at the ready. And at the prompting of quartet members and helpers, produced some bewitching sounds.

The Instrumental Petting Zoo was the youngsters’ reward for sitting through a 45-minute set by the Sweet Plantain quartet, described by one wag as, “Not your mother’s string quartet.”

The mothers in the crowd enjoyed the energetic repertoire of the classically-trained musicians as much as the kids.

A Venezuelan Fandango prompted one woman in the audience to get up and twirl with her infant daughter.

Wednesday’s event also was part of Jacob Gumbs seventh birthday celebration. His mom, Rebecca, took off work for the day, to bring Jacob and younger brother Eldridge, 4, to the special program. Both youngsters tried their hands with stringed instruments.

Sweet Plantain, described as a contemporary crossover string quartet, is in town to teach and perform with the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The quartet fuses classical music with jazz, hip-hop and Latin rhythms and every now and then, violinist Eddie Venegas, puts down his violin and picks up his Yamaha trumpet, to add a new sound dimension.

Violinist Earl Manceein soloed a short, stirring section of Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto “The Four Seasons” before handing it off to the others who quickly segued it up more than 200 years to the present, complete with rap lyrics vocalized by cellist David Gotay.

Merging music traditions is a serious, passionate focus of the group, who individually devote their daily lives to playing and practicing

Judging from the relaxed expressions on each member’s face as they play — eyes closed, lips gently pursed into soft smiles — it’s a satisfying way to earn a living.

All four members answered questions and recounted the age they took up playing an instrument.

Manceein was the youngest at age four; Venegas at six, and Orlando Wells, violist, around nine years old.

Gotay didn’t begin learning to play an instrument until fifth grade. “I feel cheated,” he said half-jokingly, acknowledging that starting children on an instrument of choice at an early age is a valuable learning experience.

Venegas concurs.

“Young kids don’t even know they are learning. They think they are playing a game,” he said.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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