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Music

Her sound is classically hip-hop

Violinist Miri Ben-Ari has found success in her work with famous rappers and in her solo efforts. She opens for the Roots in Tampa on Monday.

By Dalia Wheatt
Published September 21, 2006


Check the liner notes of your favorite hip-hop CD. If there are any string instruments on the album, chances are Miri Ben-Ari's name is in the fine print.

The classically trained violinist makes an unlikely hip-hop star, with her Israeli accent and wild, blond ringlets. But when today's A-list musicians need someone to play or arrange strings, they call on Ben-Ari.

Jay-Z, Wyclef Jean, Fabolous. Ben-Ari has worked with them all. She's featured prominently in Twista's video for Overnight Celebrity. In 2004, she won a Grammy for her strings on Kanye West's Jesus Walks. Then last year, she came out with her own hip-hop string album, a set of collaborations aptly titled The Hip-Hop Violinist.

Ben-Ari has been working on her sophomore album in New York City. No release date has been set, but the still-untitled album is already making history. The CD's first single, Symphony of Brotherhood, is the first instrumental album on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles sales chart. Though the song's success might be shocking the suits at record companies, Ben-Ari, in a phone interview, says she has always had faith in the public's ability to appreciate "real music."

What's something about classical music that the MTV generation could appreciate?

Are you serious? Classical music is real music, not like bubble gum music. It's real music with real instruments, first of all. Let's talk about that. They're actually using instruments. No samplers, no machines, no machines wanting to sound like instruments.

How do you identify with hip-hop culture?

Hip-hop culture is the current culture of today. It's the popular culture, and if you are a young person living today, this is the current culture, so everybody's hip-hop to a certain extent. When I started getting involved with hip-hop music, since I'm from Israel, what I related to personally was the struggle.

But they appreciate my guts and my music. They were like, "You know what? She's different, but she's not afraid to be her and to be original." And this is something that they represent, too.

You were accepted immediately? You were never booed off the stage?

I never had a bad show, never in my life. I'm not even talking about - I never had an okay show.

Have you been surprised by your success?

Yes and no. When I started, everybody told me that it would be impossible, and they kept saying it over and over again and I never listened. So if I didn't believe in my ability - even that it's one of a million to really cross over with a musical instrument, nevertheless a violin - I'll never be able to convince my audience. The other thing is that I don't really underestimate my audience like most record labels do. I actually believe that people like good music, and you don't need to sell them cheesy music in order for them to digest it.

Who are your fans?

Everybody. That is one thing that you do when you have music that is not affiliated with certain words because it's music, so we're not limited to a language. And there is something also that you capture even stronger when you're female because when you're female, something about being a female playing a violin that is a little bit - you know, it has sex appeal and for people to see that, they cannot really hate on me. You know what I'm saying? It's so harmless. So all old people, young people, white people, Asian people, black people - they all relate to that. Who doesn't like to play instruments?

Do you feel at all limited by the nickname "Hip-Hop Violinist"?

No, I feel honored because Jay-Z and Wyclef gave it to me. That's how I was stamped to come to the world, almost with the stars on my shoulder from the greats saying, "You know what? She's all right. She can actually play. And we hear the struggle, and we hear the street, and we hear the soul through her music, and this is why we call her the Hip-Hop Violinist."

Dalia Wheatt can be reached at dwheatt@tampabay.com

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Miri Ben-Ari performs Monday with the Roots at the Underground, 802 E Whiting St., Tampa, 813 221-4582; www.clubundergroundtampa.com. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 advance or $18 at the door. Ages 18 and older only.

[Last modified September 20, 2006, 09:50:10]


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