A Violinist Who Bridges Worlds

The classically trained Miri Ben-Ari melds jazz, R&B and hip hop. Along the way she’s become something of a cultural ambassador for Israel.

02/12/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
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Miri Ben-Ari is nothing if not enthusiastic. In conversation the word she uses most frequently is “fantastic.” It’s the word that comes up repeatedly when you ask the Grammy-winning Israeli violinist about the concert appearance she is making in New York on Feb. 20 to kick off a multi-city tour.

“It’s going to be a fantastic show,” she says, virtually italicizing the word. “My team is fantastic — I’ve got the best DJ, Roberta Flack, who is going to introduce me. [Flack presented Ben-Ari with a Big Vision Award at a ceremony last year.] It’s the week of Purim, my favorite holiday, and I encourage people to come in costume.” 

She barely pauses to catch her breath. Given how busy Ben-Ari remains as a recording artist, performer and public figure, the conversation is probably an accurate representation of what her daily life is like. If so, the head-spinning pace has made her understandably giddy with anticipation.

On the current tour, Ben-Ari says, “We’ll be featuring my original music, music that’s already out there and some that isn’t out yet.”

Her most recent single, “Dim the Lights,” is a three-and-a-half-minute showcase for her strong sense of swing and her eye for the attention-grabbing gesture. One hopes it is a harbinger of how the rest of her next album will sound, with a jazzy tilt and strong funk back beat.

That’s how she sees her music, an amalgam that combines her classical training, her jazz chops and the street cred she has earned from the hip-hop community.

“They call me the ‘Hip-Hop Violinist’ because that’s how Wyclef Jean and Kanye West introduced me,” she says. “I call myself Miri Ben-Ari because that’s who I am. I combine all the elements of all the styles I know.”

Born to two classically trained musicians, she practically grew up with a violin bow in her hand. From the age of 5 until she did her mandatory service in the IDF, she lived in what she characterizes as “a classical bubble.” It was, she admits, a bubble that she tried hard to burst.

“Even when they’re little, kids will do things just to draw their parents’ attention,” she says. “I was a rebel, I didn’t really fit in and, in hindsight, you could say that was my decision. I dropped out of high school; I couldn’t stand authority. I wanted to be independent, and I had a vision for myself. I finished [the high school degree] on my own.”

As for her parents, rooted as they were in the classical music tradition, they had some trepidation about their daughter’s interest in jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

“It took them time to adjust to what I’m doing,” Ben-Ari admits. “They didn’t know how to approach it in the beginning, but it’s okay now, they’re supportive of me. In fact, they’re going to be at this show, they’re visiting me here.”

The violinist probably had her own doubts early in her odyssey. She came to the U.S. at 16, determined to learn to play jazz, and she struggled at first. Eventually she was heard at a jam session by the late, great jazz vocalist Betty Carter, who took her under her wing. But when Ben-Ari began to write her own music, she says, “what came out was soulful R&B and hip-hop.”

Asked about the technical adjustments she has to make to integrate her classical training, jazz experience and hip-hop inclinations, she waves the question off, merely indicating, “It’s different [for each]. The technicalities aren’t important.”

She would much rather talk about how her burgeoning fame has made her both an official and unofficial goodwill ambassador for her native Israel.

“In Israel they look at me as the only Israeli hip-hop artist that has made it [in the United States], Ben-Ari says. “They look at me as someone who has brought a lot of respect for the country. I’m on a lot of major stages and I try to represent Israel with integrity. Sometimes a country can get a great image from a humble messenger like myself. I get to promote Israel in a very organic way, without all the politics, telling them how beautiful Israel is and how proud I am to be an Israeli.”

She doesn’t say it, but obviously she considers that fantastic.

Miri Ben-Ari will be performing on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Gramercy Theatre (127 E. 23rd St.). For information, call (212) 614-6932 or go to http://cncrt.ly/TNJ8aq.

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