Training with the renowned violinist Isaac Stern and then collaborating with Kanye West? Receiving an award from childhood idol Itzhak Perlman and then working with JayZ?
It’s hard to wrap your head around that until you realize that award-winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari — who was born in Tel Aviv and now lives in Fort Lee — loves music, is passionate about collaboration, and brings all her skills to bear on what has been called her revolutionary fusion of classical, soul, and dance music.
“I’m considered as a worldwide pioneer,” Ms. Ben-Ari said. “A lot of people say they can recognize my sound.” And that sound, she said, is “soulful. When I play, I play with blood, with my heart. I have classical technique, but the sound is black, like an R & B singer. It doesn’t match how I look.”
Don’t compare artists, she continued. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. When you work with brilliant people, the common thread is music. They don’t need to be compared.”
She’s worked with musicians from a wide range of genres, she said; although her early collaborations were with hip-hop artists, “It goes way beyond hip hop.” She is particularly moved by African rhythms. “It’s in my blood,” she said. “I’m from the Middle East and Israel is right there, at the top of north Africa. I don’t know what it is. I’m obsessed with African music.”
Her childhood training was invaluable, she added. “My classical training helped me 100 percent. It made me different from what’s going on with pop violinists today, who are not necessarily as classically trained. They have a different approach to the instrument. When you know how to play the violin for what it was created for, when you use the instrument to capacity to produce sound, and then flip it, you have a very important technique.
“My passion is collaboration,” Ms. Ben-Ari said. “It doesn’t matter what genre it is. Good music is good music.”
She recently collaborated with her 9-year-old son, Dorel, on a recently released single, “Whatcha Gonna Do.” She also enjoys adding additional elements to her performances. “I like to speak, to have Q and As, multi-media, audio and video. I like different elements, never one thing.”
Ms. Ben-Ari began playing the violin when she was 5 years old, and won classical music competitions when she still was a child. She got her first good violin from Isaac Stern, “who was supporting gifted children in Israel,” she said. “He instructed his foundation to give me one. My parents couldn’t afford one, since they’re very expensive.
“Learning violin was also expensive,” she added.
“I fell in love with jazz while I was doing my army service,” she said. “In the military, I already knew I would pursue something different from the way people were approaching the violin. The military is the best opportunity to ground yourself and connect with what you want to do. Many soldiers go around the world to find themselves. I had the opportunity to disconnect from my classical past.”
Something else happened to her while she was in the IDF — she developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. “It shuts you down,” she said. “I thought I would die. I had pain all over my body. I stopped playing for quite a while. It provided a break for me to regroup and think how I would like to approach my journey.”
That musical journey has taken her into collaborations with Kanye West, JayZ, Wyclef Jean, Alicia Keys, Wynton Marsalis, Britney Spears, Maroon 5, Akon, Patti Labelle, Brandy, Donna Summer, Janet Jackson, John Legend, Diamond Platnumz, and Armin Van Buuren. Her album “The Hip-Hop Violinist,” on Universal Records, features many of these collaborations.
In addition to performing all over the world, she has been named a “Goodwill Ambassador of Music to the United Nations.” “I am their music liaison on different occasions, and also a speaker, because part of the U.N.’s mission is sustainable development,” she said. “Music and art are important tools. Musicians and artists create and imagine and represent sustainability from our point of view. It creates harmony and a connection beyond words.”
While Ms. Ben-Ari supports a wide range of humanitarian ventures, she is the founder and CEO of Gedenk (Yiddish for remember), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educate, raise awareness, and encourage self-expression among young people about anti-Semitism and racism, and to learn as well about the brutal consequences of those evils.
“I am a proud Jew,” Ms. Ben-Ari said. “I am very connected to where I’m from. My grandparents escaped to Israel because they were brave enough to make it there. I’m connected to being third generation. I have an understanding of where I am and what is going on in the world. I don’t represent a political party or a certain stream.
Gedenk was founded in 2006 “to connect young people, to make sure the Holocaust won’t recur,” she said. “To remember who we are and where we’re from.
“We’ve accomplished a lot. We ran a PSA campaign on MTV, with millions of dollars in airtime. We also held a scholastic writing awards campaign, where gifted artists and writers from around the country submitted works connected to the Holocaust and racism. It spread a lot of awareness. It’s my humble contribution to what was started by the people who founded Israel and fight racism.”
To characterize Ms. Ben-Ari as award-winning is to understate. Her many accolades range from being honored as an “Apollo Legend” by the Apollo theater in Manhattan to receiving the “Aviv Award” at the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s 75th anniversary gala at Lincoln Center. The award was presented by Itzhak Perlman.
“It was a surreal moment,” she said of meeting Perlman. “I admired him as a child.” She said it also was very meaningful to receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor several years ago. “It was very powerful for me because it represents immigrants starting a new life.”
And then, of course, there was winning a Grammy in 2005, which was “beyond powerful.” And two visits to the Obama White House, which she described as “one of those ‘wow’ moments.”
In 2011, Michelle Obama invited Miri Ben-Ari to the White House to be honored as a “Remarkable Woman.” In 2012, she was invited to perform for the president. “I performed a song she requested,” Ms. Ben-Ari said. “It came from Martin Luther King. It was quite an experience.” (Her “Symphony of Brotherhood,” featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was the first instrumental single ever to hit on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop charts, MTV, and VH1.)
Ms. Ben-Ari, a self-described “people person” who is very active on social media, said that she would love for people to “stay in touch with me on Instagram, @miribenari. “I read what people say,” she said. “I do what I do because I love music and people. It’s how I connect.”