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Versatile Israeli Violinist Gains ‘Dream’ Hip-Hop Hit

by Loolwa Khazzoom

August 31, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Perusing the hot R & B/Rap Billboard charts, one does not expect to see a red-headed Israeli artist -- replete with a classic "Jewfro" mop of curls -- represented by the No. 3 song. Then again, one does not expect that spot to be filled by a violin-dominated musical number with no singing, rapping or music sampling whatsoever.

For Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari, however, doing the unexpected is standard fodder; so it should come as no surprise that her new single, "Symphony of Brotherhood" (featuring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech weaving in and out of an extended string solo) topped the charts just one month after its radio release.

Given the violin diva's penchant for multitasking high-profile projects, it also should come as no surprise that topping the charts is just a drop in the bucket for Ben-Ari. Since April, she has been featured on billboards internationally as the poster girl for Reebok's "I Am What I Am" campaign; in May, she and Israeli hip-hop mogul, Subliminal, recorded a video, "Classit VeParsi" (Classical and Persian) -- which topped Israel's video charts.

Next Ben-Ari went on national tour with the popular hip-hop group, The Roots, even as she was getting ready to release a hip-hop single about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, VH1 announced her as a new artist working with its Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to restore instrumental music education in U.S. public schools.

For many, it's exhausting just to read Ben-Ari's list of accomplishments, but the artist is full of energy. She is, after all, on a mission: "I want to bring music back," she said matter-of-factly. "In an era where everything is music samples, I'm representing a movement that's turning to live music again."

Ben-Ari grew up as a classically trained violinist in Israel, and as a child prodigy, she caught the attention of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Though she bowed to the top of one music competition after another, Ben-Ari was convinced that the classical scene was not for her.

"The whole time, I knew I wasn't going to be a classical violinist," she explained. "I didn't know what I wanted to be. I was really good with the violin. It was fun playing so fast on the instrument -- almost like a sport. But I wasn't feeling the orchestra thing."

At 17, Ben-Ari won a scholarship to study music in Boston, where she was exposed to jazz for the first time. After hearing a Charlie Parker CD, she knew where her future lay.

"I had to study whatever it was that Parker was doing," she said. "I had to be able to improvise like he did. I had to learn that language!"

Following obligatory service in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari packed her bags and moved to the Big Apple -- where she hustled gigs every night. "If I walked into a club, and there was a stage," she said, "I'd pull out my violin and play. If there was no stage, I'd still play. At first I'd get my ass kicked. But you go home, practice all day and go out and get your ass kicked again."

Persistence and gutsy acts -- which Ben-Ari attributes to Israeli chutzpah -- got her noticed by jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and the late Betty Carter, as well as by hip-hop moguls like Kanye West and Wycleff Jean. Once the heavyweights got into her act, it was not long before Ben-Ari had played Carnegie Hall, The Apollo, and Jay Z's Summer Jam -- where she received a standing ovation from 20,000 screaming audience members.

"I was a nobody," Ben-Ari chuckled, "but I had the second feature, after Missy Elliot."

Since then, Ben-Ari has gone on to record and perform with pop icons like Alicia Keys and Britney Spears, and she won a Grammy in 2004 for her violin chops on Kanye West's smash-hit single, "Jesus Walks."

It is heartening to know that someone so openly Jewish and Israeli can receive so much love from the non-Jewish world.

"Wycleff Jean and Jay Z put me on the map," Ben-Ari said with passion. "They were not Jewish white people. I'll never forget that. This is also why I relate to [African American] history. I've been working with them. I got embraced by the black community, more than any other community -- including the Jewish community. They loved me like one of their own."

The fact that she is Israeli, Ben-Ari continued, actually strengthens her connection to African Americans, whether Jewish or not. "Struggle relates to struggle," she said. "They appreciate that I'm from Israel, because I'm coming from struggle."

That mutual struggle, Ben-Ari continued, was in fact the inspiration for her recent hit single: "MLK is the hero for the black American struggle. Of course, if you're coming from a struggle yourself, you can't help comparing.... It always crosses my mind -- if we had MLK in Nazi Germany, would it have helped?

Would it have affected the outcome of the Jewish Holocaust?"

These kinds of questions are what led Ben-Ari to work on the Holocaust hip-hop single, due to be released in the coming months.

"It's almost like they say, 'music is therapy,'" she explained. "It's a way to deal. There is no other way for me."

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