Daily Israel Report

Audio: Exclusive Matisyahu Interview on New CD & Tour in Israel

Matisyahu returns to Israel on tour with new positive, hopeful songs that combine hasidic Judaism, jam band rock, hip hop and reggae.
By Yishai Fleisher and Ben Bresky
First Publish: 10/1/2009, 5:04 PM / Last Update: 10/2/2009, 12:45 PM

Jewish musician Matisyahu is returning to Israel for two concert with his new band Dub Trio. The singer's new album Light features positive, hopeful songs with a musical style that combines jam band rock, hip hop and reggae. Among the new tracks is the upbeat One Day, and On Nature, which references Jewish themes while also having a universal message of spirituality. Another track, 7 Beggars, is based on a story by the 18th century Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Matisyahu: "Jerusalem is at the heart and core of everything. Being in Jerusalem is like being at home playing for family."

Numerous young Jewish performers have claimed Matisyahu as an inspiration both musically and in becoming closer to Judaism. Furthur attesting to the musician's popularity, his previous performance in Israel in 2008 was an unadvertised guest appearance to support his guitarist Aaron Dugan's jazz project. Word quickly spread that Matisyahu would be a surprise guest at the low key Dugan concert. Avram's, a small club near Jerusalem's market quickly attracted hundreds of fans, with as many outside the club as were inside.

Aaron Dugan will again join his old music college buddy at two shows in Israel which will likely be as much a scene for American-Israelis, yeshiva students and assorted hipsters and reggae fans, as it will be a concert.

Matisyahu's surprise guest appearance in 2008 attracted hundreds of fans, more outside the small club as there were inside.
Photo credit: Ben Bresky

Matisyahu began his career at The New School For Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. He started reconnecting to his Jewish roots through Chabad and released "Shake off the Dust...Arise" in 2004. His subsequent, Live at Stubb's shot him into stardom as TV talk show hosts and concert goers were eager to see the tall, black hatted Hasidic Jew rapping and performing dancehall style reggae with Jewish influenced lyrics.

Matisyahu and Aaron Dugan, both alumni of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York performing at Avram's in Jerusalem in 2008.
Photo credit: Ben Bresky

His 2006 album Youth was nominated for a Grammy Award in the reggae category and recieved heavy airplay on mainstream radio around the world.

Matisyahu spoke to The Beat on Israel National Radio about his new musical style, his religious beliefs and his love for Israel.

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Question: Your concert at the Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem will be right next to the Old City walls. How does that feel?

Matisyahu: Pretty amazing. Jerusalem is at the heart and core of everything. Everywhere else is like being out in the world. Being in Jerusalem is like being at home playing for family.

Question: What else do you like about Israel? What are your favorite places or things?

Matisyahu: The main thing is that it's the homeland of the Jewish people. You know how it is when you get that feeling like everyone is Jewish. Everywhere else you feel like a bit of an outsider and in Israel it's like a whole family. For someone that grew up in America, everyone is struck with that when they come here, this feeling of being all together.

Question: Do you think non-Jews of the world also understand that feeling? The video for Jerusalem and your new song One Day have a very universal, utopian message, compared to a lot of other songs out there. Do you think people connect to that?

Matisyahu: For sure they do. It's totally obvious. What I was going for with "Jerusalem" was the concept awe of peace -- the thing that is the core of your existence and greater than you, that you look to with awe. That's a human thing. Everyone has that thing in their life that they are serving and are connecting to that takes them beyond themselves. People want that. The reason people listen to music that is totally empty is because music is powerful and it has that power to move you. It's very simple, just use the music and put basic meaningful lyrics and people will love it. They'll listen to it and eat it up and it will help them feel better about their lives.

Matisyahu on his 2009 CD Light:  "It's very simple, just use the music and put basic meaningful lyrics and people will love it and will feel better about their lives."

Question: Your new CD has a different sound. It's less reggae. You throw in guitars and different sounds. What was your concept?

Matisyahu: I have always been into all different styles of music. When I started singing, I was listening to a lot of reggae music and it had a big influence. That was right before I became religious. I spent a couple years where I became detached from music and that's where I had left off. So when I started making music again, that's what I was drawn to. In the last five years, I've been listening to so many different styles and I haven't had one artist or one style that I've been
totally absorbing. And when I was writing songs, that just how they came out.

Question: What was your trip to Jamaica like? Did you record any of the new songs in Jamaica?

Matisyahu: I was there for about a week in Kingston. I got to check out some sites such as Bob Marley's house. I got to meet some musicians like [Grammy award winning singer] Sean Paul. I worked with a really great producer, this kid who is doing all of the current dancehall stuff [Stephen McGregor]. Two of the tracks on the record, Smash Lies and Motivate came out of that trip.

Question: How do people down there take your Jewish appearance with your payos and everything?

Matisyahu: It's different in different places. For example in Brazil they've never seen anyone else like that so I was very easily recognizable. I was walking down the street and people called out my name and said "what's up" and were really cool about it. In other places where people really have no idea, maybe it's just interesting to them. It also depends on what I'm wearing that day. Sometimes I my payos are rolled up and I'm wearing jeans, and sometimes I'm all over the place. It changes.

Israeli singer Aaron Razel and Matisyahu at the 2007 Dead Sea Jewish Rock and Soul Festival.
Photo credit: Ben Bresky

Question: Are you are still connected to Chabad-Lubavitch?

Matisyahu: When I started becoming religious and was into the Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side. That was one of my initial ways in. I was really into those tunes.

Question: So music brought you into religion?

Matisyahu: Party so. That's one of the aspects that brought me in. Then I met a Chabad shaliach [emissary]. There is so much great work that Chabad does around the world. The shluchim are so selflessly giving of themselves and of their families, living out in the middle of nowhere. It's obvious that the Rebbe revolutionized this whole idea of shlichus and going out there and being support systems for Jews all over the world. It's a beautiful thing.

But I started to think that this is not the person that I am. So now I have just become more about studying and connecting to different things. I find you can do that particularly in Jerusalem. When you live in one particular community and everyone is doing the same thing then it's difficult. But when you're in a place like Jerusalem there is so much going on and so many different paths. I guess I'm just Jewish and I don't have any kind of affiliation or any kind of lock. I'm open to different things.

Question: Any final words about your new CD or tour?

Matisyahu: I have a new band called Dub Trio. Aaron Dugan is still with me. There a keyboard player named Rob Marscher who's pretty well known in the jam scene in America. I'm really excited about the sound. We did one tour together this past summer and we'll be touring all year together. It's really cool.

Question: Besides Israel, is there any one place in particular you are looking forward to?

Matisyahu: No, not one place in particular. I'm just looking forward to being back out on the road and making music.

Matisyahu will perform Oct. 7th at the Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem and Oct 8th at the Barbi in Tel Aviv. For more information visit http://www.matisyahu.co.il or http://www.matisyahuworld.com.

Yishai Fleisher is the program director of Israel National Radio and host of the Yishai Fleisher Show. Benyamin Bresky is a music critic and host of The Beat on Israel National Radio.