Donna Summer called her a bridge — a prophet with a violin. At the time, Miri Ben-Ari thought those were heavy words for coffee shop talk.
But the late, great disco diva was right in many ways. Miri might be known for providing soulful strings to some of your favorite songs by Alicia Keys and Kanye West, but for over a decade she has been using her music to spread peace and break down barriers, to celebrate diversity and nurture humanity.
The Grammy Award-winning violinist has played at the White House. She’s a U.N. goodwill ambassador of music. “Symphony of Brotherhood,” her 2007 tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart. That’s no small feat for a violinist. And on Sunday she brings her talents to the Gem Theater as she closes out the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s Salute to the Negro Leagues weekend.
“Music is the best vehicle to promote a message,” Miri, 36, says from her home in New Jersey. “It unites and provides a universal message, especially instrumental music. It is not limited to words. We can all do something to help change the world. I do a little bit, other people do a little bit and we all move in parallel. Together we all make a difference.”
Last week she won the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in recognition of patriotism and brotherhood. She was honored for her humanitarian efforts, such as her nonprofit, GedenkMovement.Org, dedicated to teaching youth about the Holocaust, promoting unity and fighting anti-Semitism and racism.
“We all have our own story, our own baggage. To win an award and be on Ellis Island, it was to come full circle. It was an entry point for millions of immigrants who came to America to follow their dreams. I came here for those same reasons, and it felt like I was sharing my personal experience and my humble American dream.”
Her story with the strings started when she was a child in Tel Aviv. Miri showed promise and eventually studied under the iconic Isaac Stern. After her mandatory tour of duty in the army, she came to America in the ’90s to study jazz at the Mannes School of Music in New York City. The financial grind caused her to drop out, but she never stopped playing.
Jamming in clubs eventually got her discovered by the legendary Betty Carter. She recorded a couple of jazz albums and worked with Wynton Marsalis.
But it was a chance meeting with Wyclef Jean that turned into a domino crash of collaborations with everyone from Kanye West (she’s all over his first album, “The College Dropout”) to Patti LaBelle.
“I don’t limit myself to one genre or sound. I am a classically trained musician, but I don’t like stiffness. Music, even classical music, is created to be felt, for people to dance. I never let any hardships stop me. I always believe when one door shuts, another door will open. When you study jazz, you learn to improvise.”
Kansas City, rich in jazz history, is a fitting place for the violinist. The late Claude “Fiddler” Williams comes to mind when she thinks of her upcoming show at the Gem. “I knew him. He was a sweetheart,” she says. “Kansas City was where he made his career.”
The Salute to the Negro Leagues is not just another show for Miri, it’s an extension of her story: promoting tolerance. They do it through sports. She does it through music.
“I’m third generation to Holocaust survivors, and my grandparents never spoke about the Holocaust. They broke their silence once, for me, for one day when I was 12 for a family tree project. I carry their story in me. I carry the advocacy, the passion to make a difference and preserve my heritage.
“What the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is doing is very similar to what I do. The preservation of heritage, to encourage pride in who you are and promote diversity. The Holocaust is a story about discrimination and bigotry and how it affected humanity. In America, with racism, it’s the same thing. It might be a different people in a different time, but it’s still one group of people who think they are better than another group of people. What’s the difference?”
In Miri’s world, we all might have our own song, but we can find a way to connect and dance to the same music. Sounds good to me.
Violinist Miri Ben-Ari will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Gem Theater, 1615 E. 18th St. Tickets, $25-$35 at ticketmaster.com. Patron tickets, $100-$150, include a meet-and-greet and can be purchased at nlbm.com. All proceeds benefit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
For more about her, visit miribenari.com.