When a 5-year-old Miri Ben-Ari received her first violin no one could imagine the career she’d have, but more than three decades later she is a revered name in the music industry. The soulful sound of her violin graces her own beloved albums and the tracks of some of music’s heaviest hitters.
“I always knew the violin would take me somewhere, but I didn’t know how,” Ben-Ari says.
The Israeli-born 40-year-old fell in love with jazz during her mandatory army service in her native country. “My whole journey started with jazz,” she says. “My spirit gravitated towards that music even though my instrument is classical.”
After moving to New York to pursue her career, Ben-Ari caught the ears of hip hop royalty, including Jay-Z and Wyclef Jean, who both invited her to perform at shows in 2001.
“That’s when the industry buzz started and everyone wanted me on their record,” she says, adding that Kanye West was one of the talents pursuing her. They collaborated on his 2004 album The College Dropout, earning her a Grammy Award for her work on the song “Jesus Walks.”
“I think that was Kanye’s best record, in the beginning when he was all about his music,” she says. “I did about 90 percent of the album with him and with John Legend on piano.”
Though Ben-Ari collaborated with countless other stars, including Michael Jackson, Wynton Marsalis and Alicia Keys, she wouldn’t name anyone as her favorite.
“The most amazing thing about music is the diversity. My musical journey gave me the privilege to work with many diverse talents and each collaboration was an experience I loved equally,” she says.
Ben-Ari’s 2005 debut commercial album, The Hip Hop Violinist, solidified her status as a pop culture artist.
“Universal put me on the scene with that album,” she says. “It featured almost every artist I know.”
While she’s grateful for that beginning, hip hop doesn’t define her music today.
“My career has taken me in so many different directions,” says Ben-Ari, noting that her 2014 song with DJ Armin van Buuren, “Intense,” was chosen as the year’s best song by the trance community. “I wasn’t big on trance music before I collaborated with Armin, but I brought my violin sound to his song and it was phenomenal.”
Though Ben-Ari is constantly working on new songs, videos and concerts, she makes time for her other passions, including The Gedenk Movement, the charity she co-founded to promote tolerance and Holocaust awareness to today’s youth.
“So many young people suffer because of discrimination,” says Ben-Ari, a third generation Holocaust survivor.
Her organization uses arts and culture projects as platforms for self-expression. “We inspire young people who struggle with intolerance and help them feel connected to who they are.”
One of the charity’s programs is a national contest run with Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, where students submit art and writing based on a lesson learned from the Holocaust. The six winners are honored with a ceremony at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“The whole process is really life-changing for these students,” she says.
Ben-Ari also works in the fashion world, performing and walking in shows for designers like Zac Posen, and doing advertising campaigns for Coca Cola, Reebok, Harmen Kardon audio products and more. But she still leaves a little time for hobbies, including dancing tango at Hudson Dance Studio in Edgewater, practicing Tai Chi with Sifu Karl Romain at the Edgewater Kung Fu Academy and watching movies at the iPic Theatres Hudson Lights in Fort Lee.
“The dance studio overlooks the water and I think it’s the most beautiful place to dance in the tri-state,” she says.
She travels the world for her career, but Ben-Ari loves coming home to Bergen County, where she lives with her family.
“It’s so peaceful here and the people are not as stressed. They greet you on the street and know you by name,” she says of her neighbors. Though she intends to stay and continue doing the work she does now, she hesitates to plan anything for the future.
“The most amazing things in my life have happened to me by chance,” Ben-Ari says of her journey from a small town near Tel-Aviv to her worldwide acclaim. “Before I knew it, I took turns in life I didn’t plan on taking. So I’ll just keep doing the best I can and let serendipity do the rest.”