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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Bob Marley’

Matisyahu: The Man, His Music, His Following

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

   In late August, Jewish music sensation and Shlomo Carlebach/Bob Marley hybrid Matisyahu released “Light,” his third album. Having enjoyed his first two albums immensely, and already humming some of Matisyahu’s new tracks, I began to wax philosophical while listening to his newest compilation. I asked myself: Can we define ourselves by what we think of Matisyahu and his music?

 

   I think so. First the music part. When I first heard him several years ago, I thought Matisyahu was unique and interesting, and cool! The more I listened, the more I began to appreciate him. Matisyahu takes the music that was a part of my past and sanctifies it to some extent. And in his cover versions of songs by Bob Marley and Sting, Matisyahu seems to channel the voices of these music icons with his authentic renditions. In a recent interview, Matisyahu said: “Shlomo’s music was not for the masses. It was beautiful, soulful, and deep but it was mainly in Hebrew and was born out of Jewish experience. My music is coming out of the non-Jewish world and therefore it resonates in the world at large.”

 

   For me, Matisyahu’s comments ring true. Shlomo’s music is beautiful and deep, and I have always loved it. I was honored to have my first Sheva Brachot at Shlomo’s shul on the Upper West Side, and my mother is one of Shlomo’s original devotees. Every type of Jewish person loved Shlomo’s music. Observant, non-observant. very Orthodox, very modern. And people, for the most part, were able to separate Shlomo the person from Shlomo the musician. Even if haredim rejected some of his methods in reaching out to other Jews, they would never reject his music. His music was, using Shlomo’s words, “the holy of holies.”

 

   Matisyahu is markedly different. As he says about himself, his background is secular and he grew up experiencing music in its most non-Jewish form. Maybe that’s what draws me to him. I love that his music is informed by the secular influences that shaped me, because no matter how religious I become I will still enjoy that type of music. I may not listen to it as often now; I may listen to Shwekey instead of the Doors if I put music on in the car, but it’s not because I like the Doors any less. I just feel more comfortable at this stage of my life with “Ben Bag Bag” on my CD player than “Hello I love you,” especially when I do carpool to yeshiva for my kids.

 

   I was proud to hear Matisyahu singing “King Without a Crown” on Z-100 in New York a couple of years back. I was happy when my brother, who is not Orthodox, wanted to find out more about Matisyahu and asked me questions about him and his brand of Judaism. I like seeing Matisyahu on TV, on talk shows, even the Tonight Show last week. It’s exciting.

 

   I didn’t go to too many rock concerts in my classic rock heyday, and I haven’t been to a Matisyahu concert yet. But I am impressed that he goes out, as an Orthodox Jew, and has become an expert at his profession, making great music and energizing concerts. He tries to inspire everyone. Not just Jews, but everyone whose soul he can touch. He tries to be a “light unto the nations.”

 

   In my informal research, I have found that Matisyahu cuts across levels of religious observance, and even across families. Maybe it’s because his personality is so unique. I love his music because it resonates with me. But I think I admire him personally because I feel that I am like him in some important ways. I originally described Matisyahu as a Shlomo Carlebach/Bob Marley hybrid, and perhaps as a religious Jew he is a hybrid, as well: Just like a hybrid car engine can power a car as effectively as a standard gas engine, it’s just powered differently at times, so too Matisyahu is a religious Jew, powered by both his non-religious musical past, and his present Torah true life.


 


  


   By Jonathan Jarashow is the publisher of Diabetes Digest, the nation’s largest circulation diabetes magazine.

Dusty Jewish Songs: Reggae, Beatboxing and Hasidism

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

Shake Off the Dust…Arise (2004) CD, with 17 tracks
By Matisyahu
JDub Records,
http://www.hasidicreggae.com/

 

The new face of Jewish pop music wears a black hat and jacket and a long beard. He embeds divrei Torah in his songs, which rely heavily on Jewish content. But his songs don’t come from the shtetl. Enter, instead, a bizarre matrimony between reggae, hip-hop, beatbox and Hasidic music. He is 25 years old and his name is Matthew Miller, aka Matisyahu. His new CD “Shake Off the Dust…Arise” derives from Isaiah 52:2, “Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion,” which readers will recognize from the Lecha Dodi of the Friday evening service.

Matisyahu’s unique blend begs the question of what sort of animal a Hasidic reggae performer might be. Can Jewish music maintain its Jewish component while diluting itself with other ethnic, traditionally secular and political music? And more importantly, how does that shed light on Jewish music and the larger world of postmodern music?

As a prerequisite to properly understanding what is at stake, we must arrive at a grasp of reggae, hip-hop and “beatboxing”. Reggae refers to popular Jamaican music, which contains a heavy offbeat and closely relates to the Rastafarian culture. Rhythm & blues, “ska” and “rocksteady” are the terms to remember as precursors, and Bob Marley is the man to bear in mind as Reggae’s most popular proponent.

If one begins to wonder how a music form that pertains to the Rastafarian culture can find its way into a Lubavitch singer, consider the other elements. Hip-hop – rapid and candid beats and rhythms – derives from a movement that arose simultaneously in the inner-city streets of Harlem and across the West Coast. The roots of Jewish culture are also found in the inner city. Now, perhaps we can further appreciate this cholent pot of diverse music forms in which Matisyahu adds the Hasidic element.

These music forms carry sociological and class implications as well. A classical symphony demands an orchestra, a hall and instruments. The economics of the symphony accompany heavy attention to technique, harmony and mechanics. The symphonic language – and the opera by extension – is a vocabulary of process, complexity and a Baroque (overblown) sensibility.

Dadaists like John Cage would later undermine this model with their use of silence, but clearly classical music demands a whole procedure. By de-emphasizing the lavishness of the enterprise, hip-hop and reggae allow for inexpensive music. “Beatboxing” – mimicking instruments with the mouth – effectively turns the singer into a band, and this instrument impersonation also impacts the lyrics and the tunes. Where classical music constructs deep, underlying structures, these modern forms swap the traditional opus for fast, loud and more emotive music thus perhaps deserving the tag Romantic.

So what does it sound like to combine Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach? Take track two: “Got No Water.” It begins with a wailing sound, and Matisyahu’s voice has an edge to it that fits perfectly with the squeaky trumpet sound. “Chabad philosophy that’s the deepest well-spring/ Gaining knowledge of G-d while you’re gaining money,” Matisyahu sings, “Fill up yourself with the light of his majesty/ In a world of separation that’s the only way to be/ It’s time we leave we won’t flee just walk out easily.” The first line of the Shema figures prominently in the song, and the end of the song chants “May he build the Temple speedily in our days.”

Track four, “King Without a Crown,” offers, “Strip away the layers and reveal your soul Got to give yourself up and then you become whole/You’re a slave to yourself and you don’t even know/You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow… You want G-d but you can’t deflate your ego.”

And perhaps track 13, “Exaltation” is Matisyahu at his best. The sound consists of a smooth, high pitched hum, that rises and falls over a drum beat in the backdrop. The chorus declares, “Exaltation, my G-d of salvation/The field and therein will be filled with jubilation/The Lord’s name will be proclaimed amongst the nations/We don’t have no time for patience.” The pace is just quick enough to meld the words together, but slow enough to process all the lyrics.

Matisyahu’s music thus epitomizes the exact opposite of Isaac’s declaration: the voice is the voice of Esau, but the hands are the hands of Jacob. The music sounds secular, the lyrics sound Jewish, and the singer hardly tries to hide the notion that he lives in Crown Heights. Matisyahu clearly aims to educate his audience – and this is where the Lubavitch identity kicks in – and his booking schedule sends him to clubs and different music venues across the country. He is giving his young Jewish audiences a modern, hip music that they can be proud of to the extent that they can say: look we got reggae of our own too! But ultimately there must be more than just music-as-education and a conglomeration of different musical forms.

But Matisyahu’s primary Jewish music identity comes from his secular audience and far less from his Jewish fans who merely find themselves attracted to the kitsch involved in a Hasidic looking man singing hip-hop. By taking Hasidic music – which often downplays lyrics in its own way, via niggunim – and removing it from its usual context and instead launching it in a club scene with modern beats, Matisyahu enters a discussion about sociology and politics that transcends literal Jewish questions. Instead, he uses his music to try to fit Jewish identity with some form of music into a modern picture that has never quite related to the Hasidic world before. The result is striking.

The mixture is rough around the edges. It leaves the viewers scratching their heads wondering what they got themselves into. The use of music to teach religion seems to pollute the pure auditory experience and to remove it from a high art to a pop one. But by using a musical language of enfranchisement, class and sociology, Matisyahu does achieve a self-conscious model of modern Jewish music that, though it hardly makes it all the way, does begin to scratch the surface of the question of the modern, Jewish musical landscape.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/dusty-jewish-songs-reggae-beatboxing-and-hasidism/2005/03/09/

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