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Violinist has the hip-hop world on a string

Miri Ben-Ari certainly doesn't mind when people mention that, as a child, she received a violin from the renowned virtuoso Isaac Stern. Yet she's quick to add, ''But I also got the attention of Wyclef Jean and Jay-Z and Kanye West as a violinist -- how 'bout that?"

In a world of gangstas, Louis Vuitton dons, and predicate felons, Miri Ben-Ari is a unique figure in contemporary rap -- she's a violin player, or as she's commonly known, ''the hip-hop violinist." With her trademark mane of curly hair, she's the beautiful young woman who has performed in such rap videos as Twista's ''Overnight Celebrity," and, most notably, West's 2004 debut, ''The College Dropout," for which she received a best rap song Grammy this year for co-writing ''Jesus Walks."

Now, Ben-Ari has released her latest CD, aptly named ''The Hip-Hop Violinist," with a who's who of rap pals such as old-school legend Doug E. Fresh, Dirty South stalwarts Baby and Lil Wayne, and of course, West.

''Being a violinist, you will get the attention of Isaac Stern, if you're really good, and I was," Ben-Ari says during a telephone interview. ''But getting Jay-Z's attention is special. Having Jay-Z and Kanye West blowing me up as a violinist is really something."

With her flamboyant approach to the violin, Ben-Ari has brought an always-welcome element of live instrumentation to mainstream hip-hop, which, except for the Roots, is still primarily driven by beats and samples. And with the young violinist's expansive musical knowledge, she's also bridging various styles.

''Given that she's Israeli-born and she's in hip-hop, not only is she providing an eclectic view of music, she's helping to bring together cultures through her artistic expression," says Davey D. Cook, who runs the hip-hop daily news website

Many believe Ben-Ari's new CD, released last month on Universal, is her first solo effort; in fact, it's her fourth. She's released three jazz albums, but as she proudly states, this is her first ''as the hip-hop violinist," and also her major-label debut. It's yet another opportunity to thwart the misconception that she's anything less than a virtuoso violinist. When she first began appearing in videos, there was some Internet scuttlebutt that she was there for her looks, not her musical ability.

''I blew up playing clubs and venues, from the biggest one to the smallest one, because of the way I play," Ben-Ari says. ''There are millions of good-looking young female violinists, but I'm the only one with this career. My career is about music, not about the way I look. The way I look is an extra gift I got from God, and it's something I can use for my advantage. But don't mistake it. I blew up because of the way I play."

Born and raised in Israel, Ben-Ari, 27, is the daughter of classical violinists. Through Stern's America-Israel Cultural Foundation, she received her first violin, as well as a music scholarship. Later, during her mandatory military service, she also played in the Israeli Army String Quartet.

Still, she never imagined herself with a career in classical music -- especially after she discovered Charlie Parker. His fearless, boundary-defying improvisations inspired Ben-Ari, who went on to study jazz at Mannes College of Music in New York, although she only lasted a year. She spent so much time trying to get gigs around the city, she was expelled for missing too many classes.

Yet her persistence paid off, even if her early audiences weren't feeling what she was doing.

''I played a million clubs," she says with a laugh. ''I played so many venues just to get better. The more you perform, the more you get your [expletive] kicked, and the better you get. I never went easy on myself."

Eventually, Ben-Ari landed an appearance on BET's countdown show ''106 & Park," and the generous reception she received resulted in a second performance. Soon, Jay-Z invited her to 2001's Summer Jam, the annual multi-artist festival sponsored by New York hip-hop station Hot 97. She played with the Jiggaman on his hit ''Big Pimpin'," and got a standing ovation.

Aside from her collaborations with hip-hop and R&B heavyweights -- she also handled the string arrangements for Alicia Keys's breakthrough hit, ''Fallin"' -- Ben-Ari is most proud using her talent to introduce the violin to young hip-hop fans who may only associate the instrument with classical music and symphony halls.

''I had a vision. Obviously, I never heard anybody doing this before so I made it up. I wasn't afraid to take what I knew, think outside the box, and break some rules," she says. ''I believe I can inspire young kids to pick up instruments, the violin in particular, because I can make playing an instrument look cool. If I can bring live music back into the game, that's all I want. I'm like a music messenger."

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