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Jewish World Review
May 23, 2006
/25 Iyar, 5766
And he shall build Jerusalem?
By Norman Lebrecht
The rise of a neo-Hasidic Sabbath-observant Jew with an act based on the late Bob Marley says a lot about the spiritual vacancy in pop, believes one of the most widely-read modern commentators on music, culture and politics
If anyone had told me that the next big thing was going to be a neo-Hasidic Sabbath-observant Jew with an act based on the late Bob Marley I would have reached for the copy of the Mental Health Act that I keep on the desk for persistent believers in analogue superiority and classical revivals. Still, Billboard doesn't lie.
Youth, the new CD by Matisyahu, entered the US charts at number four last month after a live album sold a cool half-million and spawned a radio hit, King Without A Crown. Whatever else this thing might be, it is pretty huge and moving fast.
Matisyahu, 26, is going global, he tells me, 'to Africa, China, Russia, everywhere'. This is messianic talk and no mistake, a beat-boxed message in a tangled beard and flying shirt-fringes. Like hand-baked matzah at Passover, this is going to take some digesting, and not only by matzah-eaters.
The music, early reggae with an explicit Jamaican lilt, betrays Marley influences both melodically 'One woman for me' is a straight take on No Woman, No Cry and in its psalmic yearnings for Zion. 'Jerusalem, if I forget you,' sings Matisyahu in his catchiest track, 'may my right hand forget what it's supposed to do.'
The personal touches are biddy-bom scats that come from Hasidic hymnody, a sweet high-baritone voice and a crisp elocution that ensures no word gets missed (to make doubly sure, lyrics are printed in the CD sleeve). 'The message,' insists Matisyahu, 'is all in the music.' But when he calls for the Temple to be rebuilt and chants 'I want Mashiach (Messiah) now', the homily turns revivalist and inescapably political. This is pulpit thumping with a hip-hop beat, a seductive musical attraction with a word-of-G-d sectarian agenda.
The artist known as Matisyahu is a born-again Jew who was born first in 1979 as Matthew Miller in the American dreamland of West Chester, Pennsylvania, to a pair of social workers whom he describes as 'non-practicing Jews'. His grandfather played pro basketball in 1930s Detroit and bequeathed the future singer his imposing height six foot three and counting. The tall kid began rapping at high school and carried on at college in Manhattan. Troubled by the drug scene and searching for roots, he put in for a semester in Jewish spirituality, which gave him a list of synagogues to visit.
The first was a happy-clappy Upper West Side 'shul' founded by Shlomo Carlebach, a German-born, guitar-plucking rabbi who reached out to alienated youngsters with catchy tunes to Hebrew prayers. Carlebach, when I knew him, was shunned by Jewish orthodoxy for being inappropriately tactile and over-prone to sitting in student rooms where substances were smoked. He was, though, a gifted composer whose liturgies outlasted his death in 1994 and were transplanted with much hullabaloo to a Cool Shul in Maida Vale, London, sponsored by the Saatchi brothers.
The budding rapper liked Carlebach's tunes but not the laidback ethos: 'I felt pretty alone in terms of my take on the world.' He was drawn to an NYU chaplain, Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn, 'who came from a similar secular background to me he was a person I could learn from.' Korn was a Chabad rabbi, an emissary of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, half of whose followers thought he might be the Messiah and the other half believe he is still alive.
'It was just after 9/11,' relates Matisyahu. 'My grandmother was passing away in Florida and I had this little leather yarmulke in my pocket that Rabbi Korn gave me. One morning at breakfast I started to wear it, kept it on when I went left the house and never really took it off. I started growing a beard, wearing my tzitzis (fringes) and letting them hang loose.' Black hat and coat soon followed, along with a rigorous adherence to religious codes. His parents, he reckons, were 'pretty cool with it.'
He married Tahlia, a protégée of Rabbi Korn's 'because I knew I'd be around pretty women and I didn't want to tempt myself' and he is the father of a baby boy, Laivi Yitzchak. He will not shake hands with female fans and takes a fridge full of kosher foods on the road. Back home, he spends his days in a Crown Heights, Brooklyn, yeshiva (seminary) for new Lubavitch Jews.
Religious awakening interrupted his college career, but not before a couple of classmates latched onto a demo tape and used it to get funding for a Jewish music label, Jdub Records. Jdub booked his first gigs, went platinum with his debut disc. Last year he defected to a new management and a Sony deal. Resentment welled in the Jewish press as Jdub's founders accused him of betrayal and ingratitude. 'Ben and Aaron were never my friends at college, they were acquaintances,' retorts Matisyahu briskly. 'They sent out my song to get a grant when I went to yeshiva. Next I knew they were booking concerts and saying they managed me.'
It is clear that he never wanted to be attached to the general run of Jewish music, least of all to Orthodox wedding and bar mitzvah pop that hitches biblical and Talmudic lyrics to a Beach Boys beat. 'Those guys are 20, 30 years out of date,' snorts Matisyahu. 'Their stuff is not particularly Jewish and they don't belong to now.'
His music, like Marley's, is a reflection of an esoteric faith, its strength sourced in the unattainable paradox of an earthly paradise. When Matisyahu sings of building a new Temple he is not out to inflame Christian and Moslem sensitivities, any more than his yearning for Messiah knowingly promulgates the Lubavitch claim to the Holy Crown. He appears, from the art itself and from our short conversation, to be a genuine naïve, concerned at most with the spirituality of the individual: 'A man is just a man, filled with faults and weakness,' he laments in Late Night in Zion, 'for a young Jerusalem, all alone and speechless.'
Matisyahu is not alone in offering an alternative to the mainstream sell of popular music, the sex and self context of arid consumerism. There is a flourishing field of Christian pop and many westernized Muslims are seeking fusion in faith and song. If Matishayu has hit on something, and the numbers suggest he has a serious hit on his hands, it is on a spiritual vacancy in pop, the absence of the beyond. At this point he is still a freak phenomenon, a novelty act. But the issues that Matisyahu raises have the potential for mass appeal and the music leaves a profoundly satisfying sediment.
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JWR contributor Norman Lebrecht is Assistant Editor of London's Evening Standard and presenter of lebrecht.live on BBC Radio 3. He has written ten books about music, which have been translated into 13 languages. They include the international best-sellers The Maestro Myth and When the Music Stops. His website is NormanLebrecht.com Comment by clicking here.
© 2006, Norman Lebrecht