December 23, 2008


Evolution of an Icon: Matisyahu’s Musical and Spiritual Journey (Jordana Horn, Dec 18, 2008, The Forward)

Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, is well known as a genre-busting Hasidic reggae artist who performs in tzitzit. But with his new EP, ”Shattered,” and current tour, he shows a new, bold eclecticism that demonstrates a simultaneous evolution in his music and religious attitudes. He’s taken true steps — away from Chabad in his religious observance, and away from more conventional reggae in his musical development — and has opted instead to define his own new path.

Matisyahu’s identity as a practicing Jew evolved gradually over the years, with its origins far from the place where he now finds himself. Raised Reconstructionist, he went on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel study program as a teenager. This was less out of a love for learning, he says, than out of a desire to get out of high school for a few months.

“Like a lot of American kids, I was not really interested in Judaism and was around that age of starting to make self-discovery. A few things kind of came together for me,” he recalled. “I started listening to Bob Marley, and that informed some of my identity in terms of music and spirituality, and seeing a lot of Jewish references within reggae music was kind of a pull for me towards piquing my interest in Judaism.” [...]

In 2004, after signing with JDub Records, he released his first album. He recorded a live album in 2005, as well as a second studio album, and became famous, performing to larger groups around the world. At the same time, his religious identity was changing.

“I’ve been through all these different phases in Chabad. Chabad has been a bit of a roller coaster for me. It was very pure in the sense that I totally divested myself from all of the confusion that I was living in. I wasn’t getting high, I wasn’t with women — I was waking up every morning and learning Torah all day. And so, in certain senses it was a pure process,” Matisyahu said.

“But there was a lot of alcoholism going on, in my experience, and a lot of borderline —” He interrupted himself. “I definitely lost myself, as well, in the process, in the sense that I somehow stopped thinking for myself. I became completely dependent on other people for my sense of what was right and wrong. I felt incapable of making my own decisions. I was borderline completely losing my mind.” And then, he said, he pulled himself out of Chabad.

It was during this period that he began working with the now Jerusalem-based therapist Ephraim Rosenstein, whom he now considers his personal friend and religious mentor.

“[Rosenstein] was able to help me come to some realizations that were really ground-breaking, and kept me from where I think I would have lost my mind in the state of being I was in at that time,” Matisyahu said. “After that happened, once my therapy came to a certain place, and I’d gotten pretty healthy, I wanted to continue with my spirituality. I guess the therapy to me was sort of getting to know myself as a valid means of spiritual growth. I wanted to take it from a personal to an intellectual kind of thing, so we started learning together. Instead of therapy, I was paying him to discuss ideas, basically.

“I’ve stopped identifying with any group of Judaism. I would now call myself an Orthodox Jew. I try to keep the tenets of halachic Judaism as strongly as possible, but I don’t identify with any one movement.”

He noted that he has not severed ties with the movement completely: “My kids go to a Lubavitch yeshiva and are named after rebbes. I have Lubavitch friends, and we stay with shlichim [emissaries] around the world. I feel I have some in-depth knowledge of Hasidus and Chabad philosophy, and close ties with Lubavitch. But I don’t feel the need to be any one thing.

“In Chabad, there was always the tendency to deify everything, whether it was the rebbes or the learning,” Matisyahu said. “[There was] this sense that you couldn’t ask questions about any of it, that if you didn’t accept it, you weren’t accepting the Torah. It was as if you weren’t religious, and that this was the one path and the true path and that anything outside of it, even if it was a different kind of Hasidim, was certainly looked down upon.” With Rosenstein, he said, Matisyahu relished a different mode of studying, which focused on placing teachings into historical and social contexts and then comparing them with other Hasidus and philosophies of Judaism.

“Shattered,” which comprises four songs, reflects this newly acquired intellectual and musical diversity.

Hanukkah Receives Kosher Pop Welcome (JON PARELES, 12/23/08, NY Times)
Matisyahu has built a career on analogies between Rastafarian roots reggae and Hasidic songs. Both are concerned with faith and survival struggles and have lyrics phrased in Biblical allusions; both draw on modal scales and melismatic vocal lines that can sound Middle Eastern. Near the end of the concert Matisyahu sang long, cantorial phrases while rocking back and forth, as if davening, or praying. Yet if his lyrics weren’t so clear about their references to Jewish history and the majesty of God, most of the time Matisyahu would simply be one more reggae-loving rocker.

In “Jerusalem,” which drew heartfelt singalongs, he worries about assimilation, singing, “Cut off the roots of your family tree/Don’t you know that’s not the way to be.” But the roots of his music are Afro-Caribbean and African-American. He uses Jamaican reggae and dancehall toasting, sometimes delivered with a Jamaican accent; he also uses hip-hop cadences and showed off his vocal beatboxing.

His band also segues into rock, for chiming marches that borrow their idealistic sound from U2. Matisyahu is less concerned with a musical heritage than with a religious one.

Album by album Matisyahu has expanded his music. Along with basic roots reggae he now uses faster, tongue-twisting dancehall toasting and the electronic beats and brooding chords of hip-hop. And he’s looking farther: Matisyahu joined Crystal Method, the thumping, rock-tinged electronica duo that opened the show, to sing and rap on a song from their next album, due in March.

-Melody Maker: The true story of a White Plains boy who found both God and reggae (Mike Rubin, 2/20/06, Nextbook)

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2008 2:03 PM
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