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Published: 2005/04/05
by Matthew Shapiro

Building a Vessel with the ‘Hasidic Reggae Superstar’

Over the years the jamband scene has become an umbrella to a wide array of artists and styles, but surely the act eliciting the most curious disbelief is Matisyahu, often billed as "the Hasidic Reggae Superstar." Just try mentioning it to an acquaintance and surely you will get a response such as, "the what?" Further more, after restating it, the next question will almost undoubtedly be, "is that some sort of joke? Well, the answer is that Matisyahu is very much for real, and he is quickly garnering recognition for his unique brand of grooving spiritual music.

Matisyahu is a serious student of reggae and hip-hop, who also happens to be a student of the teachings of Hasidic Judaism, and adheres to their ultra-orthodox lifestyle. His pious way of life in no way detracts from the fact that he his fronting one of nastiest Reggae outfits around; in fact it only helps to inspire his message. Actually, Hasidic (or Jewish) fused reggae is not as far-fetched as it sounds. There are many parallel themes in both Jewish and Jamaican Rastafarian teachings including, exile and the desire to return to Zion, slavery, redemption, and above all praise of a higher power.

Though his message and music are easily identifiable as reggae, the act is still initially a tough sell. Any all-white reggae band will always have a tough time gaining credibility, let alone one fronted by a guy garbed in the attire of an 18th century Polish Jew. Matisyahu is the first to acknowledge the apparent oddity. "On one hand it works to our disadvantage because people have all these preconceived notions about what we do. But, one the other hand," he continues, "it works to our advantage because we're like a sneak attack on people. They expect one thing, and leave surprisingly pleased. It's rare that you can genuinely surprise people."

The band lays down an authentic stripped down dirty reggae-dub sound. The trio made up of Aaron Dugan on guitar, and the tight rhythm section of Josh Werner, and Jonah David on bass and drums respectively, boils the music down to its bare essentials while emitting a surprisingly dense sound. Matisyahu adds a wide octave voice which he displays in songs and spiritual chanting, and topping it off is his fierce beat-boxing ability. As he says, "the music speaks for itself. I think if people came to the shows and sensed the slightest bit of insincerity it would not have taken off like it has."

Taken off it has. It is remarkable to attend one of their shows and see Hasidic Jews of all ages, genuine Rastafarians, frat kids, and regular music fans of several racial profiles, all getting down side by side. The band has toured throughout the entire United States generating positive responses and quite a buzz. This has led to recent appearances at this year's South by Southwest festival and on both the Jimmy Kimmel and Carlson Daly shows. Daly himself proclaimed that "there is nothing like him going on anywhere in the music world today."

Matisyahu's story begins as Matthew Miller, who grew up in White Plains New York. His family practiced Reconstructionist Judaism (which offers a self-described progressive approach to Jewish life and faith). He says through out public school he felt disengaged and like something was missing. As he explains, "I felt there was a spiritual truth in the world, but it wasn't being nurtured in me." He found his first spiritual grounding in the music of Bob Marley. "During lunch, or then skipping classes I'd just sit in my friend's car and listen to Bob. I internalized his words." Before long, Miller was a full blown dreadlocked teenage hippie.

In the eleventh grade Miller spent three months in an American school in Israel. It was there that for the first time he felt true spirituality. However, when he returned to the States he once again found himself lost. "When I came back from Israel I had no way to make a spiritual connection. I think religion is like building blocks, and I had nothing to build on." He continues, "Without a Devine sense of spirituality or connection to God, you're left looking on your own. You're searching in a world where good and bad are mixed together. You have to weave through and find what's pure, which is hard when a lot of times the bad looks like good."

The first time upon his return that Miller felt the same spirituality found in Israel, was at his first Phish concert in Worchester MA. "When that band would play music, and you're under the influence, you're experiencing your emotions and your mind's racing. It's life on a different level, a truer level. You're maximizing yourself as a human being. You're tapping into your soul. To me that was truth."

The experience led him to drop out of school and follow Phish around the country. It did not take him long to realize that it was nearly impossible to hang on to this newfound spirituality. "You don't have the strength or capabilities to be what you are at a Phish concert. So, in a certain sense these experiences were not real because you can't bring them with you."

His new goal was to figure out how to internalize this feeling of truth he discovered at Phish shows. He explains, "In Kabala (mystic Jewish teachings), it talks about the idea of vessels and light. One needs to build a strong vessel within. The bigger the vessel the more light it can contain." He continues by explaining how to him this is the real definition of religion. "To me becoming religious was about building a vessel in myself. I realize that period when I was following Phish, I was just following the light, but I had no way to store that light, so it would disappear, leaving me empty."

Returning home from tour broke and disillusioned, his parents decided it was time to straighten him out. They sent him to a wilderness school in Bend Oregon. It was here, where Miller started constructing his vessel. The school encouraged artistic creativity, giving him the parameters he needed. It was during this time he started developing his reggae hip-hop sound. He appeared at a weekly open-mic where he rapped, sang, and beat-boxed, planting the seeds for what was to come.

After two years, he returned to the east-coast where he attended the New School. It was there that Matisyahu began to really take shape musically and spiritually. The first significant step was meeting Dugan, a guitar student at the New School's Jazz program, the two music junkies quickly struck up a friendship. However, Miller spent most of his time holed up in his apartment, "with a P.A. turned all the way up, just rapping, chanting, beat-boxing and listening to a whole lot of Sizzla."

It was also in this period that he found his way to the Carlebach Shul on New York's Upper West Side. The synagogue founded by Shlomo Carlebach is renowned for its lively song-filled services. It was here where it began to click and he realized the power of Jewish music and found grounding in the Jewish teachings. It was apparent to him that he could combine his two spiritual bases to create what would become his vessel, and immediately began digging deeper into both. A chance encounter with a Lubavitch Hasidic rabbi in a park, led to his embrace of the Lubavitch lifestyle, and his transformation to Matisyahu.

He went back to Israel where he solidified his fusion of spirituality. Once returning to New York, he booked himself a Hanukah gig and called Dugan to play with him, even though Dugan had never played reggae before, although he admits, "I'd heard reggae." Dugan says though different, "the gig was fun and Matis really wanted to keep doing it. So, I called Josh who I knew through school and knew was into reggae, and he called Jonah (also a New School jazz student) and that's how we got together.

The band began quickly realized they were on to something, and were developing their own unique brand of reggae created not only by the Jewish slant but from the way the music was delivered. "Josh and I as a rhythm section have to be tight, but Aaron (who had no background in reggae)," David explains, "entered with a totally different mindset, and he brought that into the reggae. He's honestly doing things on guitar that I've never heard a guitarist do in reggae. So, as a whole it comes together as unique."

According to Dugan, "the role of guitar in reggae (in my opinion), is being part of the machine. But, that doesn't mean I have to just chuck, I need to throw in notes and melodies to keep it honest. So I try to make it half my role, and half my spirit. Werner adds "it's obvious we respect the reggae, and we like to think we were born in Jamaica, but we're also jazz musicians, rock musicians, avant-garde musicians, and Matis likes all that as well. So, we (as musicians) are identifiable in the music."

While reggae is the foundation of the band, during their shows Matisyahu will sit on the side playing congas as the band stretches out, and jams moving freely in between genres. They will also improvise while being led by Matisyahu's beat-boxing. "I love it," says David. "A lot of what you hear just has to do with our relationship and who we are and that is represented in the music. Then a lot of it is Josh's brilliant writing and the way he composes a song."

While Matisyahu writes all the lyrics, he and Werner share the responsibility of writing the music. He explains that Shake of the Dust…ARISE, their first album was by and large formulated in the studio. "We only have like 12 songs. A lot of it we came up with in the studio before recording. I'd have an idea and bring it to Josh, and he'd throw out some chords. Or. He'll lay down a bass-line and I'd just think of something to put over it, whether it be rapping, or just humming or chanting, or boxing and then I'll come up with lyrics later."

Taking their show on the road has been a unique journey in itself. Matisyahu is pleased to see how the music is resonating with people across all lines, despite the preconceived notions people might have about him and his music. "Usually it is believed that something is watered down, either the reggae or the religious element, but this is really combining the essence of both. So, people relate to the truth of it. So, so far so good all around. Jews can relate to it and identify parts of their culture and heritage and see it through the eyes of modern day Americans.

Matisyahu also thinks there are many elements of the music that non-Jews can hang their hat on. "For non-Jews, a lot of the messages are universal, even though they're rooted in Judaism, their messages anyone can relate to." Continuing he says, "also for non-Jews it's the first time they can relate to a religious Jew, and for a religious Jew to reach out and touch them. There are so many misconceived ideas about Jews and Judaism, whether it is stereotypes, or political ideas and the problems in Israel, this allows people to see the spiritual part of Judaism."

To Matisyahu "Judaism is about spirituality. That's the only way things are going to get solved, the pieces can only come together through God. I'm just trying to be a bridge and bring people together." Though he is quick to point out that his mission is not to force Judaism down anyone's throat or try to convert people. The Jewish faith prohibits that, so Matisyahu's goal is to help people discover their own spirituality. "The Rebbe would deliver the same talks time and time again, just as we're doing basically the same show night in and night out. For the Rebbe the talks were not about him, they were about the listeners and what they would pull out of it or how they'd interpret it. It's the same for me, the joy isn't playing the songs, (we've played the same dozen songs countless times) for me the joy is seeing how people react to the music.

Matisyahu's mission is simple he wants people to come to his shows with an open mind, and he tries to fill both the mind and soul with a certain Ruach (spirit). "My hope is that you take this music and let it inspire you and that you can incorporate that inspiration into your life. I want to help people build their own vessels, and show them it can be done."

Not only is Matisyahu building vessels around the country, but he is also building a reputation as one of the must see acts of 2005. He released his second album Live at Stubbs, in April and is constantly touring supporting the album. Just do not expect him to catch him on a Friday night.

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