Miri Ben-Ari: The hip hop violinist set to salute Israel
Miri Ben-Ari plays classical and contemporary, parties with Kanye West and supports Holocaust education. We talk to her ahead of her London gig
Miri Ben-Ari is the world’s foremost hip-hop violinist. In fact, she is probably the world’s only hip hop violinist. But there is no denying her achievements, from the Grammy Award she received for the song she co-wrote with rap demigod Kanye West to collaborations with Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. She has even appeared on Sesame Street and was invited to meet Shimon Peres, who gave her an award for, as he put it, “bridging the gap between Israel and black America”. The girl from Ramat-Gan in Tel Aviv done good.
“I’ve had so many special moments,” she says, calling from her home just outside New York on the eve of her appearance at the Salute To Israel “festive rally” in London this Sunday. “It was crazy to win a Grammy with Kanye. It’s not the normal career for a classically trained violinist.”
Indeed not. Ben-Ari learned classical violin from the age of six and progressed to formal studies as a teenager. So it was a surprise when, following her mandatory stint in the Israeli army and inspired by the music of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, she moved to New York. There she managed to forge a career, starting with performances at weddings and barmitzvahs.
“I did some odd jobs, which were a disaster,” she says, “but luckily my abilities as a classical musician allowed me to play Broadway shows, which I hated, too, but it was at least a way of making money as a violinist. Hell, I did a lot of Jewish weddings when I started. I struggled hard to get where I am today.”
After dropping out of New York’s Mannes School of Music, she got noticed by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and singer Betty Carter, who helped her get gigs in the city. Then she discovered hip hop, proclaiming: “I’m a big freak of rhythm.” Her first hip hop performance was at Carnegie Hall with The Fugees’ Wyclef Jean.
Since then, she has played classical violin and arranged strings for the great and the good of hip hop and R’n’B. But has this angered the purist classical community? “Not at all,” she says. “My technique is classical. I come from a very traditional school of violin-playing: classical musicians know I had the same education as them. I just take it in another direction.”
Does she feel uncomfortable in the testosterone-heavy world of hip hop?“The people I work with have serious respect for the way I play,” she rplies, “and for the fact that I’m introducing something new.” A suggestion that her glamorous looks have helped her career along provokes a curt response: “Put it this way, it doesn’t hurt.”
She mixes in stellar circles. “I hang around with celebrities when we do the same shows or go to the same parties — I’ve been to tons of Kanye’s parties. I go shopping with Kanye and Jay-Z.” Has she introduced them to the delights of Shabbat? “That’s a great question,” she laughs. “Once on tour with Kanye, during Passover, I took the night off to celebrate. I’m very proud to be Jewish.”
Proud, and not a little disturbed by the way Jewish suffering seems to be receding into the history books, hence her work for Gedenk, an organisation promoting Holocaust awareness.
“Gedenk means ‘to remember’ in Yiddish,” explains Ben-Ari, who describes herself as a third-generation survivor. “Research has shown that over 50 per cent of the kids who graduate from high school in America don’t know what the Holocaust is. We want to change this.”
So is she the Golda Meier of hip hop classical pop? “That’s very heavy,” she laughs again. “I like leaving politics to politicians. I’m more of an educator. I’m an ambassador for Israel. And when people hear me play, they tell me I have Jewish soul.”
Salute To Israel Parade: Sunday, June 29, in Central London from midday-2pm