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Mari Black: A Music Ambassador Doing Her Own Thing

Mari Black, who has won multiple awards for her fiddlin' prowess, says she came by her talent naturally. "I grew up in a musical family. My mother, Bonnie Black, is an amazing classical cellist – a pedagogue, to be exact. She is something else. I grew up watching her teach, and being around music was awesome for me."

Photo by SubbusClicks

Mari was born in New York, grew up in Portland, Maine, and moved to Boston when she was eight. Being exposed to her mom's music made it a natural for Mari to want to play music as well. "The violin chose me," she laughs. "When I was a toddler, I would use anything I could find to simulate a violin. I would use chopsticks, garden trowels, or anything else I could rub together. My mom got me a 1/16th scale violin that was so tiny – I still have it. I can't remember a time when I didn't play music. I used to play along to my mother's records and even with her students."

One thing Mari says she didn't do was listen to her mother's advice. "I was determined to do my own thing. But at around twelve or thirteen, I got serious. I had to schedule lessons with my mom." Attending fiddle camps exposed Mari to different types of fiddle music, from Irish and Scottish to Texas-style fiddling. "I heard Mark O'Conner, and he blew my mind."

Mari entered her first fiddle contest in 1993. "It was the Skowhegan State Fair in Maine. All the country fairs had fiddle contests." Mari learned about contra dances and fell in love with the Maine French Fiddles. "And I loved spending time with the older fiddlers – we called them the 'fiddle geezers,' who were like grandparents who taught and mentored us. The fairs were like a meeting of the musical community, and they took place from May through December, every weekend if you were willing to drive a few hours."

Mari's website describes the fiddler as a teacher, composer, dancer, competition judge and musical ambassador.

"I was super fortunate to be raised by artists. My mother has been a teacher, performer and scholar, the trifecta with all three entities of an artist. Then I had the honor of studying under Willie Ruff at the Yale School of Music, who taught me to follow the stories behind the music to learn more about others and about myself." Mari teaches workshops when on the road, and during the Covid pandemic, she became a self-proclaimed "Zoom hipster," teaching seminars online four times a week. Now she teaches in a small private studio with just a few students. "I have to schedule lessons between performances."

Mari doesn't use the term "composer" for the music she creates. "I don't always have a vision. I do what I call 'catching tunes.' I hear beautiful, wonderful music, and I have to learn it from my head before it flies off to another fiddler."

The dancing component comes from Mari's exposure to contra dancing.

"I grew up as a contra dancer, and that goes back to French musicians. I found my tribe music world through contra dancing." In college at Yale, Mari decided to learn to do the Argentine tango. "I don't know why I chose something so difficult to try to master." But that led to swing dancing, blues, and finally, romance. "I met my partner through dancing." Mari says she loves any kind of dance music. "It is designed to make the human body move, and that's always a good thing."

Being a competition judge comes naturally to Mari. "Growing up as a career competitor, I learned so much from the judge's comments. I took them all to heart. Now I love being able to judge. I feel it's an educational opportunity for the young fiddlers coming up behind me."

Mari with her Glenfiddich Champion's Quaich (trophy), 2014. Photo by Derrick Maxwell.

Finally, Mari says "musical ambassador" is a catch-all phrase. "I feel music is a medium for trying to connect people to learn about other folks." Mari has connected with folks all over the world. She has received numerous awards and accolades, including being named Scotland's Glenfiddich Fiddle Champion, Canadian Novelty Fiddle Champion, and first prize in American Protégé International.

Mari's performances are dynamic, and her sense of playfulness and her love of the history behind the music come out on stage. She brings her music to life with driving dance tunes. It's not unusual for the audience to be on their feet and dancing with Mari before her show ends.


Mari's solo debut at Carnegie Hall. Winner of the American Protege International Piano and Strings Competition

f you can't see Mari live on stage, listen to either of her two albums. Released in the spring of 2014, Flight is Mari's debut album that features her favorite dance-inspired fiddle styles. The album includes songs from Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton, Canada and the Americas, as well as a few original tunes that Mari was able to "catch." Her most recent album, Unscripted, is a collaboration with three-time world accordion champion Cory Pesaturo. Filled with spontaneity, improvisation, and the unexpected, the album contains jazz tunes, klezmer horas, Celtic reels, Argentine tangos and American rags and was named one of the Top Ten Albums of 2020 by "Gord's Gold" at the Folk Music Notebook.

Photo by Dale Rempert

Mari says she is "cooking up" a new album and is looking forward to playing at the Acadia Festival of Traditional Music and Dance in June. "People are getting back to touring in this post-pandemic world, and I'm really excited to get back in it."

Gaming aficionados can also hear Mari's music. She has music on the video game "BioShock: Burial at Sea." She also has a YouTube channel and enjoys making videos for her "Mari's Tune of the Month" features. "Hopefully, I'll have a lot more tunes in my future."

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