Miri Ben-Ari: The Hip-Hop Violinist

An Israeli born, classically trained musician is trying to make a name for herself in the world of hip hop. She's backed up numerous platinum-selling artists and is seeking some of the spotlight for herself.

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ED GORDON, host:

Miri Ben-Ari was born in Israel. She's a veteran of the Israeli Army, and a classically trained musician. She's also a music maker that's trying to bridge the gap between music genres. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports.

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BRAKKTON BOOKER reporting:

This is not the typical sound of Hip Hop. As she tunes the strings of her violin, Miri Ben-Ari shatters many stereotypes about what Hip Hop artists are supposed to be. No hard knock life persona, no visible tattoos--she doesn't even rap. She's purely an instrumentalist.

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MIRI BEN-ARI (Musician): I always treated my violin as a voice, meaning if there was a song or track, I wouldn't approach it like I'm in a big horn string section. I would approach it like I'm the lead vocalist in the front.

BOOKER: For Miri, the front is a place she seemed destined for. She has long since traded the stiff, charmschoolesque posture associated with many classical violinists. Now, she has a sporty, sexier look, a pair of tight jeans and a baby T, giving just a peek of her flat tummy. She will be the first to admit that her current look helps draw people in. But for her, it's always been about performing her music.

Ms. BEN-ARI: I always believed that when you get on stage you should treat it as the most important opportunity and privilege that you have as an artist. This is when you get exposed, you know, for what you do.

BOOKER: What she can do is manipulate a crowd. Take for instance, her special guest performance at the world famous Apollo Theatre in 2002.

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BOOKER: The crowd erupts when she switches to Hip Hop hits, [unintelligible] Who Am I, and the classic, One More Chance, by Notorious B.I.G.

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Ms. BEN-ARI: When I play, I zone out. I don't even have recollection of what I'm doing when I play. You know, people mediate to get where I get every show. And it's the best high that you can get. It's unbelievable.

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BOOKER: Nana Brew-Hammond is a writer living in New York. She wrote a cover story on Miri for the city's weekly culture newspaper the Village Voice. She explains a typical reaction from a crowd seeing Miri perform for the first time.

Ms. NANA BREW-HAMMOND (Writer, Village Voice): You expect to see a Jay-Z, but you don't expect to see you know a little Jewish girl with ringlets of curls framing her face playing the violin. And I think that there's definitely freshness or an awe that comes over a crowd when they get to see that performance.

BOOKER: It's when she performing that she's winning fans. Her fiery style lead Kanye West to request Miri to arrange nearly all the string sections on his debut album The College Dropout. But it's song she did with rapper, Twista a couple a years ago that really got people's attention.

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Ironically, the title of this song is Overnight Celebrity. nothing though was ever that easy.

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BOOKER: She released three previous jazz albums that says the transition to Hip Hop was a major battle.

Ms. BEN-ARI: It was almost impossible. And whenever you're doing something very different, you have to struggle to be heard; you have to struggle to get your place and space.

BOOKER: Miri says there was no such thing as Hip Hop violinist category at Tower Records, or anywhere for that matter. So what she had to do was find her own way.

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BOOKER: Her journey began in a tough neighborhood on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Influenced by her classically trained parents, Miri was playing the strings by six. Jump ahead ten years, just after her mandatory tour of duty with the Israeli Army was complete, she set here sights on America at age 16. She bounced around New York for a number of years. Then in 2001, finally caught a break. A mutual friend introduced her to Hip Hop super-producer Wyclef Jean. She says he wasn't blown away by her.

Ms. BEN-ARI: Wyclef wasn't very excited about me when he met me the first time, but his camp liked me.

BOOKER: Eventually, Wyclef came around, and it was he who dubbed her the Hip Hop Violinist. And from there, her career took off.

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BOOKER: Historically, instrumentalists are not chart toppers, and Miri Ben-Ari's 2005 CD,The Hip Hop Violinist failed to generate much buzz. According to Nielsen SoundScan, it only sold 22,000 units. That despite a CD flooded with platinum selling artist like Fabolous, Anthony Hamilton and Kanye West. Writer, Nana Brew-Hammond says her music executives were timid and failed to let Miri shine on her own.

Ms. BREW-HAMMOND: The focus was more heavily on the rappers, because they didn't trust what she was doing, and kind of let other people's lyrics, other people's personalities, images, take over what she was doing. So it didn't feel like that there was some sort of cohesive story that she was telling.

BOOKER: Miri says she knows not everyone will buy into the notion of a Hip Hop violinist. But she points out though, her music is starting to win over younger fans.

Ms. BREW-HAMMOND: It's a privilege that I have to the kids from the hood that otherwise they wouldn't be exposed to such playing. It doesn't need to follow a certain protocol all of the time. Once you got sound, you got people, you can always perform.

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BOOKER: Whether Hip Hop artist Miri Ben-Ari every rises to the top of the chart remains to be seen. But she is already working on her follow-up hip hop album, tentatively scheduled to arrive in stores sometime late this year or early 2007.

Brakkton Booker, NPR News.

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