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Q&A: Miri Ben-Ari

The Grammy Award-winning violinist and producer talks Kanye West, Jay-Z, and serving in the IDF

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Miri Ben-Ari’s spooky ability to make her violin talk in a multiplicity of voices, from classical, to jazz, to soul, to hip-hop, has made the classically trained cat-suited Israeli violinist a favorite of artists like Jay Z, Wyclef Jean, and Kanye West (she co-wrote “Jesus Walks” and produced many other songs on West’s debut, The College Drop-Out). Ben Ari’s mastery of technique is more than matched by a drive for emotional and musical openness that declared itself with unusual strength—accompanied by occasional tears, and a cappuccino—during a long lunch at Antica Botega del Vino, a wine bar near Central Park. I liked her combination of hard steel, softness, blatant self-involvement, and crazy. “Dim the Lights,” the first single off her upcoming album, is already out: The video features Ben-Ari flying on a violin, and Ben-Ari and a dog wearing identical sunglasses, and sounds like something you’d hear in a cool late-night club in Paris.

The following is an edited version of portions of our conversation.

When did you first pick up a violin, and what was your relationship to it when you were young?

I was 5. It was a very difficult instrument, and I liked the difficulty. I liked the challenge of being able to play really fast. It’s a little bit of a sport, the violin. It’s an insane instrument.

My brother and I were part of a gifted-kids program put together by Isaac Stern. And almost every single person or kid that was there, they were all like concert masters or soloists. The classical music bubble in Israel was a very intelligent group of people, coming from an intelligent group of parents, very nonviolent, it was a good situation, you know. I don’t get along with institutions. It’s not my forte. So there, I belonged to something. And it gave me confidence, it developed me. And most importantly, it gave me opportunity.

To master an instrument like that especially as a child, it’s got to connect to such basic drives. In you, I feel that intense desire for mastery and that intense drive that blocks out everything else.

Yeah, definitely. I dropped out of school. And my parents just went with the flow. Very modern, really amazing parents. They trusted me. I asked my dad not too long ago, “How did you let me do that, it’s insane.” And he said, “You were so focused as a kid, you knew what you were doing, I didn’t worry about you.” I liked to practice, to do my own thing, and then I was exploring other types of music, and I fell in love with jazz.

Tell me about being this girl from the classical bubble, who didn’t like to follow instructions of any kind and gets thrown out of school, and then goes to serve in the Israeli Army. That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

The army was a life-changing experience for me. Because I was in this bubble and I always was with people that played and knew me because we played. There it was basic training with a group of chicks from everywhere. And they knew me for who I was. And they loved me for who I was, without knowing anything about what I do. I made friends with girls because they thought I was cool. And nobody before thought I was cool.

There is something that the army does where it doesn’t matter who you are, you are all one in the army. They’re training you to be one. You’re all equal. And because of that, it gives you that sensation that everything is possible. It just wipes you out, and then you move forward. Does that make sense to you?

Your prior existence, personality, your assumptions about yourself, your context are all wiped clean, and then you realize, “I could be anyone!”

You can start over again. And my problem was that I was very stuck on classical. I had to stop.

And then you came to New York?

Right after the army. I lived in a Christian dormitory on 14th Street with four college girls, and they kicked me out because I practiced. No matter what I did, I got kicked out. They failed me in music, and then they kicked me out of that Christian dormitory because I practiced music. And I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m homeless, no money, no communication skills, no family! No friends.” I didn’t have anyone to talk to. But always with musicians, we have a language in common, we have music. And there were also men that were after me.

You couldn’t find a boyfriend with a decent apartment?

That came later. I wanted to do things myself.

And so at what point did you start to gain some traction?

Years. My first break was with Betty Carter. She heard me in a jam session. Betty had good ears. I went to every jam session, sometimes a few times a week to get traumatized, and then I would keep practicing. It was in a club next to the Blue Note Underground. I don’t know what’s the name because it kept changing owners. Ms. Carter walked in with her entourage and people said, “Oh, Betty Carter is here.” So, I made sure to play when she walked in. You gonna hate on a blonde chick with a violin on stage? What are you gonna do? And she heard me playing and she walked over, and she said that she wanted me to be part of her group, Jazz Ahead. And the concert that we had, the New York Times mentioned two people—and I was one of them.

Betty Carter said to me something the first day that I got into Jazz Ahead. She said to me, “Miri, you’re white, you’re a girl, and you play violin. You have to be twice as good as anybody else over here.” And I was like, “Oof, that’s kind of a tough welcome,” but I understood what she meant. She was right.

But that’s also why she connected to you. Because she probably felt that way when she was young too. Someone once told her “You’re black, you sing jazz, and you have to be twice as good.”

Wow. You know, nobody ever said that to me. I’m going to start crying right now. Because I really, really liked her. She didn’t have to help me. She sent me, she recommended me to festivals, and her office recommended me after she passed. When she was ill, we kept in touch. Wow, I never understood it like this. Thank you.

I once dated a violinist, and the funny thing used to be watching her dance, because the classical structure was so in her head that she could never get that rhythm right. But I was also aware of the difficulty for her having been trained to hear and feel in this way since she was 3.

See, I feel that beat in me. I was always exposed to classical music, but I played black music like I grew up in Harlem. So, this radio station had an event, and they had an already signed group playing there. And the person who invited me thought I was amazing. And he said the producer of the Apollo is in the house, and I want you to play. And I’m like, with whom? There was no one on stage. And he was like: “By yourself.” I’m like, where is the beat? And there was this DJ on stage, DJ Ace. So, I went over to him and I said to him, “Listen, I’m about to get on stage, you’re gonna flip beats behind me.” And I said to him, “Keep changing records.” And he looked at me. I was like, “Don’t worry.” I was a jazz musician, I can play on any record on any given time, and live, it’s nothing to me. I already recorded Live at the Blue Note.

So, I went on stage, I closed my eyes—back then I didn’t look at the audience yet—and he started flipping hip-hop beats. Probably 99 percent of them I did not know, it was the very first time I was playing. Improvising! Jamming! Now usually when I play, I zone. And then at some point the crowd got very, very loud. It was so loud that I thought that a fight broke in the audience. And I’m seeing they’re cheering for me. I have no idea what I played. The next thing that happened was that the Apollo producer invited me to get on the show to perform.

Also, one of the people who heard me at a jam session brought me to Wyclef, and I started hanging out at the studio with Wyclef, who at the time didn’t even look at me. At the time he used to call me “The Violinist,” wouldn’t call me by my first name. He was really at a fantastic time in his career and he was producing so many artists. And when he used to produce, I used to stand in the hallway and play along with the beats. No shame.

There is a saying in jazz, you know, break open the box—the violin case—so there I was, always in people’s faces, playing. And they started saying, “Oh my god, that sounds so good, can you record that?” So I wound up recording tons of things, some of them came out commercially, like Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’.” I met Michael Jackson. Wyclef, I got to record on one of his albums. And then, Wyclef needed someone to help him with his Carnegie Hall project, someone who understood classical and hip-hop. All the sudden I had a name. From “The Violinist,” it was “Miri.”

I was a good Jew, so I negotiated a feature, and I got screamed at by his people: How dare I negotiate a feature! And as part of the negotiation, I got to work with his DJ. I had two days at the Carnegie Hall and then I had the Apollo. Carnegie Hall didn’t go very well because the feature was way too short, and I didn’t at the time know how to time a 20-something-second feature.

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Q&A: Miri Ben-Ari

The Grammy Award-winning violinist and producer talks Kanye West, Jay-Z, and serving in the IDF