MIRI BEN-ARI: COMMUNICATING THROUGH HER VIOLIN
By Paul Freeman [Oct. 2011 Interview]
It’s not easy being a truly unique artist in the music world. But it can be rewarding. Just ask Israeli-born Miri Ben-Ari, an internationally renowned, Grammy-winning violinist whose style melds classical, jazz, R&B and hip-hop influences.
“I’m always thinking outside the box,” Ben-Ari said. “When you’re doing something very original, very unique, you hear a lot the word ‘No.’ People are afraid of things that don’t sound like something that they already know.
“But then again, when they get to check it out, they appreciate your courage to do something new. People express their gratitude in a way that actually inspires you to keep going and keep doing what you do.”
Her passionate playing has earned the gratitude of such collaborators as Alicia Keys, Wynton Marsalis, Britney Spears, Patti Labelle, Donna Dummer, Maroon 5, Brandy, Janet Jackson, John Legend and Jennifer Lopez.
Ben-Ari began her classical training at age five. “I wasn’t very social. And I communicated through my instrument.”
At 12, she received a violin from Isaac Stern, whose master classes she later attended. “He was an amazing musician. The fact that someone is an incredible violinist does not mean that they can teach great. He was an incredible teacher. And an inspiration.”
She discovered jazz while serving her hitch in the Israeli army. Ben-Ari decided to move to the U.S. “I fell in love with the culture. I felt that it was the place for me, where I could go after my dreams. Jazz is American music. I felt that, if I came to the States to study jazz and learn how to improvise, then I would be able to write and play my original music and then the sky will be the limit. And I worked very hard, going after this dream.
“It was very difficult. I didn’t speak English enough to understand what was going on. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have a place to live. I didn’t have family here. It was a very tough beginning. And thank God, I didn’t know how tough it was about to be. Sometimes ignorance is very good.”
Playing gigs to pay the rent forced Ben-Ari to miss classes, resulting in her to losing her music college scholarship.
“At the time, I was heartbroken. Imagine, early twenties and I was following my absolute dream. I left Israel. I left everything that I knew to that point, came here to the very unknown, starting from scratch. And I had to drop out of school, which had been my dream, the reason I came here.
“I have this side of personality. It’s like the cliché - if it doesn’t break you, it makes you stronger. I just decided that was not going to be the catalyst to make me stop believing and going after my dream. And I just went full force. I looked for another way. I’m a person always looking for another way of doing things.”
She gained knowledge and experience, playing at New York clubs all night, jamming with jazz and R&B musicians. She began getting shows, commercials and appeared on TV from the famed Apollo Theatre. That caught Jay Z’s attention. He showcased her at major arena concerts and on high-profile television programs.
“It was a turning point in my career, definitely. The entire industry and the pop world was suddenly aware of me.”
In 2001, Ben-Ari began collaborating with Wyclef Jean. “Wyclef titled me ‘the hip-hop violinist,’ because in his world and experience, my approach to music had so much attitude and it wasn’t classical and it wasn’t jazz. It was very commercial. And I was grooving like a hip-hop artist. That’s why he called me ‘the hip-hop violinist.’ For me, I was just being me. Then I got to work with Kanye West, from the very beginning of his career. Hip-hop broadened my horizon to become more of an original artist.”
With Wyclef Jean, she was part of the first hip-hop concert to be held at Carnegie Hall. “Because I grew up in the classical world, being on that stage, that meant the world to me.”
Her powerfully dramatic “Symphony of Brotherhood,” whose video features footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, has brought numerous honors. It’s the first instrumental single ever to hit Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop charts, MTV or VH1.
First Lady MIchelle Obama invited Ben-Ari to the White House as a 2011 “Remarkable Woman.” And she is first Israeli to receive the Martin Luther King Award from Israeli President, Shimon Peres.
I believe that this song captures something very, very special. It presents the message of Martin Luther King in a very unique way. It touches people. And that’s the most important thing. I’m also supposed to perform for the new Memorial for Martin Luther King in D.C.
“I actually wrote this piece, many, many years ago. I’m very, very connected to this whole subject of racism. I’m a third-generation Holocaust survivor. And, for me, racism is global problem. I lost family in Europe, because of racism. And so, when I visited the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, I was so touched by the presentation and I thought about this song. And this is how it was born.”
She is the CEO and co-founder of Gedenk ("Remember"), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting awareness among young people about the Holocaust.
“If we don’t understand our past, we’ll never be able to prevent things like this from happening in the future.”
Ben-Ari has been the voice of VH1’s Save The Music. “Kids that play instruments, they are more disciplined. Kids that practice every day can focus better. They’re better in school. It develops the brain. Not to mention, sometimes, for kids, it’s the only way they are able to express themselves.”
Of her tireless commitment to philanthropic efforts, Ben-Ari, 32, said, “It actually became the most important part of, not only my career, but my being. Music has to do a lot with giving. II do believe that, as a global community, we do have an absolute responsibility to care for each other and to help the ones in need.
“Music is a bridge. It has healing power. Music communicates better than words, most of the time.”