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Matisyahu: rockin’ the heart of reggae

You’ve probably never seen an Orthodox Jew headbang unless you’ve been to a Matisyahu concert. His hair a little silver, beard covering his face, he seems wise beyond his 31 years, but can still headbang harder than any teenager I’ve seen. Hasidic Jews are known for incorporating music and dance into their worship, expressing their spirituality through creative outlets, but I don’t think it’s been done quite like this before. 

Two seemingly contradictory paths, a devotion to Orthodox Judaism, and a talent for gritty free-style beat boxing and reggae-infused singing, have intertwined with style in Matisyahu’s genre-busting music. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, there may be little mystery to how these distinct cultural influences found their way into Matisyahu’s music, that blends Hasidic Jewish singing (which uses syllables rather than words to express emotion, reminiscent of skat and reggae “eh oh’s”) with the kind of poetic rapping only found in underground hip hop, and a little bit of masterful beat boxing to top it all off.

Despite starting out with a somewhat rebellious attitude towards authority and discipline, (dropping out of high school, following the band Phish around on tour), Matisyahu (then known as Matthew Miller) later found the balance he was looking for in the structure of Orthodox Judaism. After traveling to Israel when he was 16, and completing high school in a wilderness school that focused on cultivating the arts, the seeds had been sown for his spiritual conversion. In retrospect, it may not seem so surprising a 180 coming from someone who makes a living out of harmonizing contradiction. 

Dressed in his traditional Jewish hat, an Adidas-style track suit hoody, and Nike shoes, his style and movements (slight step-hopping, the would-be break-dancing kind) screamed New York hip hop scene, as he took the stage at the Commodore Ballroom Sunday night. He has been touring around the world with his band, Brooklyn’s The Dub Trio, for almost 2 years, promoting his latest album Light (going everywhere from Poland, to Russia, to Australia and South America). While the 31-year-old Hasidic Jewish musician from New York is best known for sparking a new-age revival in reggae music with the Billboard top-charting hit “King Without A Crown” and his Grammy-nominated 2006 album Youth, his latest album, Light, inflects more ska and rock-edge to his style. Matisyahu seems intent on making it even harder to place him in any one particular box.

But he made sure to warm up the crowd with some generous doses of the soulful reggae beats that made him famous, before showing off some of his cultural expansions found on Light. Melding hints of drum ‘n’ bass, rock, and ska-punk, he showed us that there’s a few more genre-bending cultural shocks up his sleeve. But make no mistake, Matisyahu pulls it off so naturally that it makes you think the would-be culture clashes should have fit together all along. This musical mix came together most dramatically and skillfully in his song “Darkness Into Light” which had a synthesizer spouting drum ‘n’ bass beats, while an electric guitar created elevating sounds behind Matisyahu’s reggae rapping. 

But all this added edge was softened by Matisyahu’s surprisingly beautiful and uplifting voice which, backed by the echoes of an electric guitar, created ethereal dreamy songs that built up and smoothly transitioned from singing, to scatting, to beat boxing, rapping and reggae chanting like in “I Will Be Light” where he chants “You’ve got one tiny moment in time, for life to shine, to shine, to burn away the darkness.” His song “Aish Tamid,” ending with a powerful crescendo, but starting off as a beautiful ballad, and then transitioning smoothly to something between singing and rapping, before picking up speed towards a marching underground hip hop beat where he spit poetic lyrics that created a collage of images of Israel and New York.

Many of the songs showed off his singing voice, but near the end of the show, his voice dropped a whole octave for a medley of songs (“Dispatch the Troops”, “Lord Raise Me Up”) that held a distinct grimy reggae sound that belongs in a bumping cadillac. It’s here where it was unquestionably clear that the record was recorded in Jamaica, and if you closed your eyes, you were easily transported there. 

While his faith provides the inspiration for his poetic lyrics, and at times Matisyahu performs in a way that makes it seem like a spiritual act (eyes closed, deep in concentration, or else lost in his own spinning) his music invites people to share a connection to his triumphant sense of hope. His songs “One Day” and “Jerusalem” had the crowd’s enthusiasm drawing him out of himself and into direct connection with those singing along. There is a recurring theme of perseverance that undoubtedly people from all backgrounds can relate to, like is found in “So Hi So Lo” where he sings “I am searching for the shade of the tree/Heard about it from a tune in the breeze/They say it exists on the other side of the road/But which road nobody was told/ So low/ All I know is I must find a road/That leads where nobody goes/So low/I can roll down the windows where the wind blows down those fears and foes.”

Matisyahu is a reflection of melding of cultures that co-exist but rarely intertwine as gracefully, successfully, and confidently. His constantly evolving sound is somehow stunningly and excitingly new, while also being comfortingly familiar and reminiscent of the simple poetic hope found in the likes of reggae icons like Bob Marley.

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