Monday, October 23, 2006

Orthodox Rocks

I had an article published in the New Times last week previewing Matisyahu's performance in Syracuse. The article is not available online, but if you live in Syracuse, you can pick it up until Wednesday. My original article was much longer and I really like some of what they cut (although I can understand why they did and I was happy with the published piece), so this is my original article:

Reggae artist Matisyahu is a musician, but it is rare to hear about his music. He gained attention from the fact that he is a Hasidic Jew and the buzz followed. He has been described as a novelty and criticized for using his yarmulke, tallis, and payas as a gimmick.

Matisyahu is playing at the Landmark Theatre on October 18 as part of an international peace summit hosted by Syracuse University, and if you are going to spend $32 or $52, you should go for the music. If you’re interested in Lubavitch Judaism, the strict sect of Orthodox Judaism to which Matisyahu belongs, take a pilgrimage to Crown Heights or go to a Chabad House.

Matisyahu’s latest album, Youth, reached gold status and is a blend of reggae, beatbox, rap, rock and traditional Jewish music. Youth is not without its faults, mostly in Matisyahu’s unpolished voice. But the songs are catchy and easy to dance to, which should translate well to the stage and make for an entertaining concert.

Album highlights include the rocking rap-inspired hit “King Without a Crown” which includes the choice line, “Crown Heights Burning Up.” The rebellious “Youth” and the Zionist “Jerusalem” are the rallying cries he is most known for, but lesser known songs like “Dispatch the Troops” and “What I’m Fighting For” offer a melodic change of pace. There is even a love song in the form of “Unique is my Dove.”

Matisyahu is not the only artist to mix reggae music with the music of other cultures and he believes that both the music and the subject matter of reggae account for its versatility.

“The first thing that jumps into my mind is the content of the music,” he says, “A lot of time it is borrowed or inspired by the Old Testament. It’s something that all religions stem out of.” He says that universal ideas like unity, hope, and redemption come from the Old Testament.

He describes the music itself as “soft music.” “All cultures relate to it. It’s not like hard rock,” he says. He adds that reggae music is in the same vein as rock and roll music in that a lot of types of music are born out of it.

As a teenager growing up in Westchester, Pa., Matisyahu, then Matthew Miller, was not religious. At that age it was hard for him to relate to Judaism, he says, and was certainly not interested in Orthodox Judaism.

His first connection to the devout sect, not surprisingly, had to do with the music. Reggae music connected him to Jewish ideas. Songs like Marley’s “Exodus” painted scenes that young Miller could relate to. However, the life changing moment occurred when he visited Israel for the first time at the age of 16.

It was Simchat Torah (sometimes pronounced Simchas Torah), a holiday he was not yet familiar with. Simchat Torah is a festive holiday which involves dancing around with the Torah. Matisyahu recalls hearing drumming in the backstreets of Jerusalem. He approached an ally and saw a group of Hasidic men banging on a table and drinking wine. It was a “whole different world” he had never seen before. Seeing Orthodox Jews “happy and celebrating and joyous” juxtaposed his idea that they were always serious.

Matisyahu’s music reflects this celebratory spirit.

Matisyahu will perform at the Landmark Theatre on Wed., Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster and are $32 and $52.

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