Miri Ben-Ari is a classically trained violinist who’s collaborated with Kanye West, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Wynton Marsalis, Maroon 5, Patti LaBelle, Janet Jackson, John Legend and many other best-selling artists.
Her collaborations have influenced her sound – a fusion of classical music, R&B, jazz, hip-hop and Afrobeat. “Young musicians don’t understand how I do what I do on a violin. It’s very important to have the classical foundation and knowledge. It gives you the skills to technically do whatever you would like to do,” said Ben-Ari, who studied with violinist Isaac Stern.
Ben-Ari is touring Ontario this month, with stops in Belleville, Markham, Brampton and Oakville. “I like to take my audience on a journey that is not limited to one style or one genre. It’s a true musical experience that tells my story,” she said about her multimedia show. On tour with Ben-Ari is Sadé Emoni, an R&B singer who appeared on the television talent competition, American Idol, when she was 15.
Ben-Ari’s first professional violin was a gift from Stern. After she performed for him during a master class, on an inferior instrument, “he said, ‘She really needs a good violin,’” Ben-Ari recalled. So he arranged to give her one through his foundation. “I still have this instrument and I’ve recorded with it many times,” she said.
Born in Tel Aviv, Ben-Ari left Israel in the late 1990s after finishing her mandatory military service and enrolled in the jazz program at The New School in New York. She took on gigs to help pay her rent. She caught hip-hopper Jay-Z’s eye when she appeared on a hip-hop and R&B music video show on the television network BET. He asked her to join him as a headliner at the 2001 edition of the annual summer concert presented by New York’s hip-hop radio station, Hot 97.
She went on to create a hip-hop mix with a DJ, live at New York’s legendary Apollo Theater. “I still thought I was playing jazz. Because for me, it was all just improvisation and grooving to a beat. I didn’t even understand at the time the difference between the genres. I got into commercial music from that point,” Ben-Ari said while on the phone from New Jersey, where she’s based.
Dubbed “the hip-hop violinist” by West, she won a Grammy Award for best rap song in 2005, as one of the co-writers of West’s single “Jesus Walks.” On her 2005 album, The Hip-Hop Violinist, Ben-Ari collaborated with platinum-selling rappers like West, Lil Wayne and Pitbull, among others.
Her 2009 single “Symphony of Brotherhood,” featuring the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr., was the first instrumental single to be charted in Billboard’s R&B and hip-hop categories.
Composed with her musician brother, Ohad Ben-Ari, “Symphony of Brotherhood,” took her around the world, Miri Ben-Ari said. She’s performed it for former Israeli president, Shimon Peres, for the Obamas at the White House – where former first lady Michelle Obama honoured Ben-Ari with a Remarkable Woman Award – and at the United Nations.
Ben-Ari’s recent releases include an award-winning single she recorded with the Tanzanian musician Diamond Platnumz. The song, “Baila,” won for the best collaboration at the 2019 African Entertainment Awards, USA.
The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Ben-Ari is the co-founder of the Gedenk (“remember” in Yiddish) Movement, a foundation that aims to promote tolerance and increase Holocaust awareness among youth through music, art and dance.
Ben-Ari is performing on March 10 at the Empire Theatre in Belleville; March 12 at the Flato Markham Theatre in Markham; March 13 at the Rose Theatre in Brampton and March 14 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts. For tickets, visit miribenari.com/blog or the theatres’ websites.