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.

miri370 (photo credit: Noam Galal)
(photo credit: 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 “one-woman show.”
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 violin.
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 choice.
It’s not because I have to. It’s because I want to.”
But 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 accompaniments.
“It’s the Miri Ben-Ari experience,” she says with conviction.
“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.
Isaac 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.
“I 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 genre.
“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 Games.
“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 am.”
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 denial.
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.
“That 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.”