Miri Ben-Ari stood onstage at the Apollo Theater in New York City. She cradled her violin in her arm and stared at the audience. Although her eyes sparkled, they concealed a defiant determination, as if she knew something the hip-hop heads waiting impatiently in the darkness didn't: Her violin was about to rocket hip-hop music to the next level of expression, which she would call "urban strings." Casually, she raised her fiddle and positioned it under her chin. Then, without a trace of the fury that would soon explode from her right hand, she elegantly lifted the bow. Miri flicked her head sideways, tossing her cascading curls behind her back. The DJ saw his cue, and soon, a pulsing, rhythmic scratching blared in the background; Miri's fingers raced up and down the violin's neck, creating music that singer Patti LaBelle said "sounds like a human voice."
Virtuoso performances like Miri's appearance six years ago at the Apollo inspired rapper Wyclef Jean to crown her the "hip-hop violinist." We hopped to it when we got a chance to rap with Miri.
BABA: Hi, Miri. What do you like about hip-hop?
MIRI: Hip-hop accurately reflects the attitudes of today's youth. Before hip-hop, songwriters really didn't say what was on their minds. In hip-hop, though, you say what you mean, and I loved the idea that there was a genre where you could do whatever you wanted to do.
BABA: You were trained as a classical violinist but chose a distinctive musical path. How did your family and friends react?
MIRI: They didn't get it, but that's okay. When you do something different, you must be a hundred times better than other people, because every time you perform, you're proving the reason for your choice.
BABA: How does your career illustrate the idea of freedom of choice?
MIRI: My career is all about the freedom to choose. I chose my career despite the fact that everyone warned me that I might not be doing the right thing; that I might not have a future; that there might not be room for me as an artist. Nonetheless, I chose it, because this is who I am.
BABA:What prompted you and Israeli rapper Subliminal to launch Project Gedenk, which is a Holocaust remembrance program?
MIRI: I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and it is my responsibility to tell the story. Remembering the Holocaust is critical to preventing further acts of genocide; if we don't tell the story of these terrible events, we could increase the risk that they will be repeated.
BABA: How has being an Israeli influenced your choices?
MIRI: I was trained in classical violin, and Israel has the best classical music education. But it's no coincidence that I have broken new ground in music. Being Israeli gave me the edge to stand on my own, to not be afraid of what people said, and to face hard times.
BABA: Thanks, Miri, and Shanah Tovah U'metukah!
Miri credits her unique sound and brassy stage presence to hours of classical training. Regular practice, she says, “gave me dexterity and the technical skills to improvise.” Only well-trained musicians attempt improvisation (also called improv) because it demands a profound under standing of music that comes from experience. When done properly, improv brings performers to a point where they can choose the best possible option to fit new and unexpected situations.
Like skillful musicians who dare to improvise, we can dare to lead more Jewish lives, secure in our freedom to choose. According to Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892– 1953), regular Torah study prepares us to encounter behirah points, specific moments when we’re forced to make ethical choices. Most of these choices, he says, are minor and won’t involve serious consequences. But each time we make a moral choice, even if it’s insignificant, we become more skilled at ethical decision-making. Soon, all our decisions, big and small, will be righteous and in harmony with Jewish tradition.
Miri Ben-Ari was born and raised in Israel where she was classically-trained on the violin. The famous violinist, Isaac Stern, recognized her talent when she was 14 and recommended her for a scholarship to the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. While she was serving in the Israeli military she played with the prestigious Israeli Army String Quartet. She became interested in jazz and decided to move to the United States to study it. She has collaborated with artists such as Alicia Keys, Kanye West, and Akon, and just released her song and video, "Symphony of Brotherhood," which uses Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech.