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The singer’s latest release is a CD and DVD combination, which includes seven new songs and concert footage from his first concert series in Israel from December 2005. The singer is looking forward to his return to the stage in Israel and is even in the process of making Israel his permanent home.
His tour continues to other nations after Israel. “In different countries there’s somewhat of a different reaction,” says Matisyahu, “but there’s definitely a universal thing that happens with music probably more than anything else in people, where those lines get crossed and some human thing in them just comes out.”
Born Mathew Miller in New York, Matisyahu first broke onto the scene performing ‘Hasidic reggae.’ His 2004 release Shake off the Dust... Arise contained roots-style Jamaican reggae with lyrics based on the Torah, Hasidic teachings and other Jewish subjects. The novelty led to appearances on national TV shows in the United States where he told the story of his love for reggae and his return to a Jewish traditional lifestyle through the Chabad movement.
The image of the tall, bearded man in a black hat singing rapid-fire rap and reggae made him an underground sensation. His second album, Live at Stubb’s shot up the Top 40 Billboard charts earning him an unprecedented Billboard Top Reggae Artist.
In 2006 Matisyahu released Youth which also topped the Billboard charts and earned him a Grammy Award nomination for Best Reggae Artist. He lost to Ziggy Markey, the son of reggae legend Bob Marley, however another Jewish group, The Klezmatics won the award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. Before the Matisyahu phenomenon, the only time a Jewish oriented song received mainstream airplay was Tzena Tzena Tzena by The Weavers with Gordon Jenkins in the early 1950s.
Although Matisyahu is seen as a reggae artist, he doesn’t necessarily stick to a strict interpretation of it. “Hopefully my sound is developing,” said Matisyahu in a phone call on the road in Israel. “Hopefully I am able to put together different sounds. The music that I make is not based on any one specific line of music. I love and I hear so many different interesting sounds. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the past and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Matisyahu is already writing material for his next album. “There will be sounds ranging from electronic music to African music to reggae to hip hop to rock. So it will be a real combination,” he says.
Matisyahu is also experimenting lyrically and expanding his citations of Jewish philosophy to include other hassidic masters aside from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He says future lyrics will include the teaching of the 19th century Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Rabbi Nachman is a popular source of inspiration for musicians in Israel due to his focus on music, folk tales and meditation.
“I don’t know if I want to put it out there yet,” says Matisyahu of his future projects. “There was a dream that Rebbe Nachman had and he said that all of his teachings are based on this dream. I have also been particularly interested in The Story of the Seven Beggars since I have been here in Israel.”
Matisyahu also performed briefly this week with Israeli Hadag Nahash whom he met previously in the United States. Hadag Nahash performs a self-described mix of hip-hop, funk and jazz and often uses bitingly sarcastic lyrics from a liberal and secular point of view.
“A couple of years ago they had a show at the Knitting Factory [a prominent concert club in New York],” related Matisyahu. “My manager at the time wanted to bring me there. I asked them if I could get on stage and they were probably like, “who’s this Hasidic guy?” They had never really heard of me before. I got up there with them and it was really cool. It’s was a real powerful moment. And now two years later after my success to come back and collaborate is nice. I like doing that in different countries where I am collaborating with different artists.”
In addition, Matisyahu has also joined international pop star Sting on stage in Israel and participated in an impromptu street performance in Jerusalem with the popular reggae/world-music group Aharit HaYamim.
“I was eating at Big Apple Pizza on Yaffo Street,” recalls Matisyahu. “It sounded really cool. I had a concert that night at [Jerusalem concert club] The Lab.” Minutes after Matisyahu left the microphone, he was surrounded by enthusiastic fans. Today his popularity has only increased.
Other recent projects have been the annual benefit concert for HASC - The Hebrew Academy for Special Children. Although visually, Matisyahu has the same black hat and button-down white shirt as the other performers, his mix of rock guitars and Caribbean rhythm is a stark contrast to the other artists.
“If a Jewish person is making music with some roots and some foundation within Judaism, that’s what I would consider Jewish music,” comments the singer on the subject. “The ideas behind the music and the meaning behind it – that’s what would make it Jewish.”
Joining Matisyahu in concert this week will be Daniel Zamir, an old friend from the New School, a university in New York City attended by Matisyahu and his fellow band members. Zamir’s Jewish jazz, particularly his newly released album Amen is becoming increasingly popular in Israel.
“He was a young guy in music school and known to be this protégé,” says Matisyahu of his friend. “John Zorn, the famous saxophone player [and founder of Tzadik Records] was his mentor. He and I were both doing teshuvah. We started hanging out a little bit. After yeshiva, we came back for the graduation. I look down the hallway and see this fully religious Jew. And he sees me now with a beard and everything. He went through some pretty intense changes. And that, I think, is a good thing. I think it’s a good thing to always be changing.”
Matisyahu will be performing Saturday night at 9 p.m. on March 31, 2007 at Binyanei HaUmah, the Jerusalem International Convention Center, with opening act Daniel Zamir as well as on Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on April 1, 2007 at Hanger 11 in Tel Aviv with opening acts Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box and DJ Yaron Lidur. For ticket information visit MatisyahuWorld.com
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Benyamin Bresky is the host of The Beat on Israel National Radio. He maintains a journal on Jewish and Israeli music at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Radio/Author.aspx/1180
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