Miri Ben-Ari: the violinist uniting different genres to startling effect

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The Independent Culture

Miri Ben-Ari is apparently the world's first hip-hop violinist, yet if she wasn't respected by Jay-Z and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, it'd seem like a gimmick from MTV's Punk'd. But this 27-year-old classically-trained Israeli can rock her violin with an MC swagger and everything about her brashy countenance shows she's not afraid to prove it.

Sprawled on a bed in a cosy West London suite, her mass of curly hair dwarfs a cute face, her eyes hidden behind designer shades. Then there's the bare midriff, which has become a bit of a trademark for the lady who was raised as a good Jewish girl and later enlisted in the army where an exposed belly wouldn't exactly be in line with playing with the Israeli Army String Quartet. "I'm very New Yorker," she shrugs. "I feel American and I am an American. There's nothing like New York. It's a place where everything is accessible to you. You can get everything in the world."

You might say Ben-Ari, once a homely mop-top and now a picture of ghetto-fabulousness, is living the American dream. She's esteemed in jazz circles, has won a Grammy, fronted ads for Reebok and Ecko, and is, as she tells it, pioneering a new type of musician in the US who are keen to mash Bach with Tupac. "It's almost a trend in America today," she sighs, as if she's told it a dozen times before. "Violinists call themselves the hip-hop violinist, which I find really silly. It's better you have people looking at you this way, giving you the title. You cannot be an Apollo legend. The Apollo needs to nominate you to be an Apollo legend."

She's referring to her 2001 TV performance on Showtime at the Apollo. Introduced by Wyclef as "the hip-hop violinist", Ben-Ari took the stage in front of the legendary merciless crowd who were too stunned to boo. But after a furious rendition of Notorious B.I.G's "One More Chance", she was given her props. The show's producer received so many calls praising Ben-Ari that she became the first violinist to be honoured an Apollo legend.

She puts the memory on top of a list of many obstacles she's had to overcome since making the transition from jazz musician to the Alicia Keys of strings. "At the beginning when I went to all these venues, they didn't even want me on the list because they felt, 'Violin, what the hell?' But I fought," she says.

Numerous jam sessions and an invitation from Jay-Z to collaborate with him at New York's Hot 97's 2001 Summer Jam lead to an encounter with Kanye West. He insisted she laid her plucky fingers all over his multi-platinum debut album The College Dropout and she co-wrote "Jesus Walks". By the time she penned her 2005 album The Hip-Hop Violinist, she had secured cameos from West and other R&B and rap VIPs such as Doug E Fresh, John Legend and Anthony Hamilton. "It's very rare that a white violinist from Israel gets that much love and support in the American hip-hop scene," she says.

Ben-Ari sometimes boasts of her exploits with a mixture of disarming confidence and sheer audacity, which is a little surprising considering she's something of a newbie to many. When asked if the jazz community shunned her for crossing over, she retorts: "I have three albums in jazz. I worked with Wynton Marsalis on my second album. You think anybody could really mess with me? I've played with jazz legends y'know!"

She goes one step further when discussing her album. "This was my first album in hip-hop and I worked with almost everybody," she smiles. "I am serious stuff. I won a Grammy before my album came out."

I joke that Kanye West's legendary arrogance must have rubbed off when they toured in 2004. "I'm not that type at all," she insists, her smile gone in a flash. "If I have to categorise myself, I categorise myself as a humble person. Arrogance turns me off. Being confident doesn't mean you're arrogant. You can be confident and humble at the same time."

She puts her self-assurance down to being a hustler and struggling in her quest to fulfil her dreams. As a child in Tel Aviv, Ben-Ari played classical music, and was recommended by legendary violinist Isaac Stern for a scholarship to the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. She experienced a brief stint in the military, which she says also had a major impact.

Finding solace in playing music, her tastes started to waiver after hearing Charlie Parker. "I decided I didn't want to play what other people composed," she explains. "I wanted to do my own style and I figured the best way to learn how to improvise was actually to learn how to play jazz music."

She decided to move to New York to study jazz. "I left my house when I was 16 and bought my own ticket to the States," she explains. "I decided to turn my back on my classical career and start all over again in another country. I hardly spoke English - I had no money, I was homeless actually. But I believed in what I do." A Jewish music album, The Music of Miri Ben-Ari and Friends came in 2000 before she signed to HalfNote Records, a subsidiary of Blue Note. The label's first album, Sahara, was released in 1999 to critical acclaim, before 2000's Temple of the Beautiful featuring Marsalis, and 2001's Live At the Blue Note became moderate hits.

So why did she turn to hip-hop? "One of the things that I really love about hip-hop is that it's not limited," she gushes. "Hip-hop has been so many types of music genres, the influences are from jazz, to classical to Latin music, to rock music. But hip-hop is more of a lifestyle than a type of music."

Ben-Ari loves that she can sample the best of both worlds. "I get to do the very street and the very snobbish - and everybody loves music," she chuckles. "Violin is an instrument that you usually see at the back of the stage. I kept it in front of the stage."

However, she frowns on the present state of the industry. "I hope to reach a level as an artist who is more like a mentor because there are not too many people in the music world, and I'm talking the commercial music world, that get the exposure that I get and are actually real musicians," she complains. "I don't need to tell you how much garbage is out there, but in order to be an artist you don't need to be a musician. People are getting sick and tired of this."

If all goes according to plan, her next album will revolve around neo-soul, and will a more instrumental affair. In the US, "Symphony of Brotherhood" has become the first instrumental single to hit the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts, reaching number two. But she's also branching out by writing the score for a new Hilary Swank flick and is the face of VH1 Save The Music, an initiative to promote music education. As she jokes, there's a lot more strings to her bow. "I'm a classic musician, I'm classically trained. I'm not street smart; I'm book smart. I'd much rather do music that is for everybody. Call it the globalisation of arts."

Is she worried the novelty of a hip-hop violinist will wear off? "I started this genre, so I need every inspiration to keep it moving," she maintains. "When you're being the first one, you take a lot of responsibility too. I've had to convince people time after time and fight them all the way. But it's always hard when you say you're going to do something different."

'The Hip-Hop Violinist' is out now on Nice Tunes