reviewed by Lindsey Eck
Matiyahu is a seeker. He grew up as Matthew Miller, a typical Jewish kid from White Plains, New York. As he came of age he underwent two conversions: spiritually, to Hasidic orthodoxy and musically, to reggae.
The ethnic spectacle of a skullcapped, bearded white guy with a Hebrew name becoming the hottest new reggae star has gotten Matisyahu notice in the mass media. But Matisyahu is no curiosity. He’s an authentic original, and dread serious.
Authentic, because (unlike so many white guys—Clapton, Men at Work—who have appropriated reggae for their own purposes) Matisyahu has the sound and feel of a born islander (and I don’t mean Staten). Original, because these songs extend the reggae idiom in many directions without morphing it into an unnatural hybrid.
Consider the title track where the guitar approximates the heaviest of rock and even metal sounds, yet we’ve never left Jamaica (and I don’t mean the neighborhood in Queens). He incorporates the rapid-fire post-rap delivery of the likes of Kiedis (Chili Peppers) while making sly intertextual references ranging from the Police to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
If the orthodoxies of reggae (as the music of Rastafarianism) and Hasidism might seem incompatible, Matisyahu’s songs—both in content and delivery—stake the claim that, at heart, the two are one. He exploits their shared imagery (Zion, Babylon, planting seeds) to find commonalities in the two traditions, while his patriarchal appearance and command of the stage simultaneously evoke Bob Marley and the Baal Shem Tov. Indeed, one of his more explicit statements of belief concerns ecumenism (quote):
In "Jerusalem," Matisyahu begins by offering a historical justification for Zionism as a refuge from persecution and murder:
Jerusalem, if I forget you
Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do
Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about 60
I’m burning to death in this century
The gas tried to choke but they couldn’t choke me
But the lines that follow are from the perspective of an American Jew afraid of losing his connection to the Holy Land, not an Israeli in the midst of the actual Jerusalem:
They come overseas, yes, they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory
Change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history
Why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree
Don't you know that's not the way to be
Of course, he must address the ugly situation in today’s Middle East. He resorts to mystical imagery, which philosophically may seem to duck the issue but musically and lyrically is exactly the right effect:
Caught up in these ways, and the worlds gone craze
Don’t you know it’s just a phase
Case of the Simon says
If I forget the truth then my words won’t penetrate
Babylon burning in the place, can’t see through the haze
Chop down all of them dirty ways,
That’s the price that you pay for selling lies to the youth
In "Shalom/Salaam," Matisyahu collaborates with Youssou N’Dour, a well known African singer and musician, to share a moment of instrumental peace between Hebraic and Arabic traditions. The root of salaam (and Islam) is often translated ‘submission’, and it is this submission to God’s law that brings peace, via humility, fidelity ("one woman for me," he sings in "Unique Is My Dove"), and generosity. In this Matisyahu’s orthodox message translates into universal concepts of ethics that transcend the Bible, the Koran, or religion itself.
However, the medium outweighs the message and Matisyahu seldom sinks into didacticism. Mostly, he creates meaning via a mystical and poetic evocation of archetypes and myth; his lyrics invite you to share his colorful and humanistic vision rather than lecturing the listener.
Consider "Fire in Heaven," which begins the album:
Fire descends from on high in the shape of a lion
Burn the sacrifice of pride and ride on to Mount Zion
Capitalize on hot air, soar like an airplane
False pride is suicide but you’ve got nothing to gain
Babylon’s buildings raise like flames
Drowning in their champagne
Explosion pulled the pin in the hand grenade
This lyric alludes to 9/11 and suicide bombing while denouncing the idolatry of wealth; all, saith the Preacher, is vanity. But Matisyahu is not an Ecclesiastes; he quickly turns Amos:
You walk around like somebody owes you something
Take what you got, thank G-d for all that life brings
The poor man has it all but not content with anything
While the rich man’s hands are empty but he’s sitting like a king
There is no time to taste what you ate
We should be grateful Got a plateful
But Matisyahu is not counseling passive acceptance. In the title track he speaks to the necessity of sociopolitical action:
Control in your hands
Slam your fist on the table and make your demands
Take a stand, fan the fire for the flame of the youth
Got the freedom to choose, you better make the right move
Can an affluent Orthodox Jew really adopt the tropes and traditions of an art form rooted in poverty and a radical Christianity? Can a performer really embody humility and marital fidelity in a music world that makes a spectacle of egotism and libertinism? Can a world view associated with patriarchy and communitarianism remain relevant in a time of gender equality and individualism? Matisyahu does not resolve these contradictions so much as he transcends them. After all, he’s not here to construct an argument; he’s here to make music. And the music’s organic vitality and infectious rhythm, together with the beauty of the verbal images, make the point: Listen to this and try to deny what you’re feeling is an experience of spirituality. Tough to achieve, but Matisyahu hits that feeling with his first note and it stays till the last note.
Matisyahu has written and recorded a personal psalter, and what a righteous addition to the canon are these 13 psalms.
But the best thing about this album is the way you can ignore the socio-politico-ethnic subtext and groove to the sheer pleasure of the reggae. From the first drumbeat to the last syllable, Matisyahu gives good dread.
Lindsey Eck is a writer, editor, musician, and composer who lives in central Texas. His Web site is http://www.corneroak.com.