In tune with the times
Having succeeded in the world of hip hop, Israeli-born violinist
Miri Ben-Ari is constantly looking to "reinvent" herself.
Miri Ben-Ari Photo: Noam Galal
When rap kings Jay-Z and Kanye West crowned the statuesque Miri Ben-Ari the
“hip-hop violinist,” America’s ears perked up to the classically trained
musician. While she’s grateful for the title, also the name of her 2005 solo
album, that has brought her fame and sponsorship deals, the Ra’anana native says
she has transcended that nickname.
“I guess when you’re being titled by
the biggest artists of today with that name, all you can say is just thank you.
Thanks for seeing me that way. It’s something that goes down in the history of
hip hop,” says Ben-Ari, 34, in an interview from New York City, where she has
lived since she finished her IDF service. “But my body of work has gone way
beyond hip hop.”
With five albums under her belt, her first CD, Sahara,
came out in 1999, and the most recent The Hip-Hop Violinist II came out in 2008,
Ben-Ari seamlessly crosses among classical, jazz, rap, R&B and other genres.
She writes, arranges and produces her own music, referring to herself as a
In her video for “Dim the Lights,” a jazzy, mellow song
she debuted last July, Ben-Ari sings the sultry three-line lyric and flanked by
two men vying for her attention, plays a quick, sexy melody on the
Ben-Ari won a Grammy in 2005 for co-writing Kanye West’s hit
“Jesus Walks,” a cherry on top of the career she has made for herself as a hip
hop, pop and R&B collaborator with every big name; Alicia Keys, John Legend,
T-Pain, Donna Summer and many others.
She’s quick to almost defend the
sheer number of collaborations she’s done.
“I love to collaborate, don’t
get me wrong. I made a career out of collaboration, but it’s a matter of
It’s not because I have to. It’s because I want to.”
her concert Wednesday at Grammercy Theater in New York City kicking off her
Beautiful Sound tour will be all Ben-Ari and anything but limited to hip-hop
“It’s the Miri Ben-Ari experience,” she says with
“I do art through music. How people label it is very
important too because you are the way that people see you, but it’s all labels.
At the end of the day I’m Miri Ben-Ari.”
Ben-Ari first picked up the
violin at the age of five when her parents enrolled her and her brother in a
classical music program for Israel’s so-called child prodigies.
Stern taught its master classes, and she became one of his students. Stern
recommended Ben- Ari, then 12, to his foundation to purchase her her first
violin, a gift her parents could not afford. She attended an arts high school in
Jerusalem but decided the strictures weren’t for her and dropped out.
was a very independent kid,” she says, laughing.
Ben-Ari dreamed of
moving to New York City ever since she won a classical music competition as a
child and spent a summer studying music in the US. However when she got to New
York in the ’90s, she says classical music took a backseat to her new-found
obsession with jazz. After studying for a year at the Mannes College of Music in
New York, Ben-Ari was expelled for poor attendance because she spent so much of
her time at gigs at jazz clubs.
It was during this period that Ben-Ari
began developing her own sound and composing original music, and she says jazz
opened the door for her.
“I found if I knew how to improvise jazz music,
I’d be able to come to my own original style. I was right about that,” she says.
“I was eating, breathing jazz.”
Listening to jazz great Charlie Parker
took her breath away.
“His recording made me drop everything and look for
that light, the jazz light,” she says. Her hard work started to pay off when
legendary jazz singer Betty Carter discovered her in a club one night and
invited her to join her group Jazz Ahead.
While Ben-Ari is still writing,
producing and performing jazz music, currently collaborating with Kenny G on a
project, she says she has seen a lamentable shift in New York’s appreciation for
“The Big Apple at the time, 10 years ago, was very big in
jazz, bigger than today,” she says. “Jazz is, unfortunately, as the years go by,
it’s dying. But it’s gonna be American music forever.”
A true dual
citizen, Ben-Ari has been honored by both the presidents of her home country and
adopted country, performing at the White House in March 2011 for Women’s History
Month and receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. award from President Shimon Peres
in January 2008. She says she will perform at this July’s Maccabiah
“Israel is very proud of me,” she says. “I’m not an American Jew.
I’m an Israeli Jew, and they see me as one of their own, and I
Ben-Ari says that as a Jew and as an Israeli she strongly resonates
with the civil rights battle and the African- American story. “Struggle relates
to struggle,” she says poetically. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors,
Ben-Ari was traumatized at age 12 when for a family tree project her
grandparents told her the story of how they survived and her other relatives
perished. She turned that trauma into constructive action, founding Gedenk
(“Remember” in Yiddish) to combat ignorance of the Holocaust among American
youth. The NGO is launching a contest to create a representation of the
Holocaust through art. Through self-expression, Ben-Ari says she hopes more
people will connect to the history and she can fight Holocaust
Last month, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther
King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, Ben-Ari performed her moving anthem,
“Symphony of Brotherhood,” which features segments from the speech.
particular event celebrated the brotherhood between the Jewish and the black
community and it’s something I’ve been doing almost automatically, without
really having to define it, because this is who I am,” she says. “You know, I’m
from Israel, I’m Jewish and I’m playing black music.”
As she has branched
out over the years into production, Ben-Ari is still grateful for the classical
foundation she received, explaining that classical technique taught her harmony,
how to translate her thoughts immediately in jazz and the tools to transition
into pop and R&B. Other hip-hop violinists have emerged in recent years to
follow in her footsteps, and Ben-Ari says she’s happy to see others breaking
into her territory. But she can hear the difference between those who are
trained and those who are self-taught. And she may be growing weary of the
“hip-hop violinist” title anyway.
“It’s great to be the first one to
start a genre, but I think that I took that and I kept reinventing myself.”