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June 29, 2009
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Matisyahu: Roots, rock, rebbes

ASPEN - Matisyahu is typically referred to as a Hasidic reggae singer, and it's hard to argue with the accuracy of that description.But it's probably closer to the truth to call him a reggae-singing Hasidic Jew. Matisyahu's faith appears to be more fundamental to him than the particular style of music he makes."My religion influences my life in all aspects," said Matisyahu, who appears Monday at Belly Up Aspen (and turns 30 at the stroke of midnight). "It's a fully integrated religion. It's not an an-the-weekends thing. It influences my thought, my being."Reggae has also been a most significant influence. When he was 14, and still going by his given name, Matthew Miller, he discovered Bob Marley, whose words launched Matisyahu's spiritual search. As a teenager, he took a major side trip into the music of Phish, but by the time he emerged as a singer - with the 2004 debut "Shake Off the Dust ... Arise," and more prominently with 2005's "Live at Stubbs" - Matisyahu was firmly in the reggae camp. "Youth," from 2006, reached number one on the reggae charts, and was nominated for a Grammy in the best reggae album category.But those albums mixed rap and rock with the dancehall and roots styles of reggae, an indication that he didn't feel confined to reggae. And with the forthcoming "Light," due for release Aug. 25, Matisyahu stretches further out, mixing more hard rock, electronica, pop and rap into his sound. Certain tracks, like "Darkness into Light," have only the faintest hint of reggae. The album ends with "Silence," which owes more to acoustic folk than to Jamaican rhythms."I don't think reggae needs to be the foundation of what I do," said Matisyahu by phone from a tour stop in Salt Lake City. "It is a major part of my foundation, but not necessarily the way I'm going to make a record."Reggae has the advantage of fitting with Matisyahu's professed philosophy of unity and hope. "Reggae is a spiritually conscious, meditative, humble music," he said. "I think of reggae as having many of the traits of godliness in it."Stylistically, Matisyahu is still in an expansion stage. "Light" was made with the help of Sly & Robbie, the top-shelf Jamaican rhythm section, and Stephen McGregor, the son of Jamaican singer Freddie McGregor. But also on board were Eric Krasno, guitarist of the New York groove band Soulive, and Adam Deitch, a producer and drummer associated with the funk and hip-hop worlds. Matisyahu has spent much of his time since making "Youth" listening to electronic music. And he has allowed himself time to breath: He essentially took a year off from touring to write and record "Light.""Anytime you make music, you're looking to expand," he said. "It's not about stagnation. Any kind of art, you're looking to expand. The way it works is, you listen to music, different types of music, and you are influenced."My first couple of records, the big influence was conscious dancehall reggae. At this point, I don't have one style of music more than another style. You see a broad array of styles being brought together."Onstage, however, he is keeping it close to reggae. Matisyahu is backed by the Dub Trio, a New York group that he says "gets into real heavy roots reggae stuff."While the sounds on "Light" come from a variety of sources, the message remains unified. Matisyahu says his words of spiritual uplift - on songs like "I Will Be Light" and "We Will Walk" - come from the Orthodox Judaism he began to explore at 16. With "Light," he was specifically influenced by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who was known for stories, including a parable called "The Seven Beggars."There may be one aspect of Matisyahu's life that is mostly untouched by his religion. That is his high-energy stage presence. Matisyahu said that his performance style comes not out of any connection to Judaism, but "is born in the space of listening to other musicians."One aspect of his performance, however, has been limited by his religion. Matisyahu, who is married, no longer stage-dives, for fear of being touched by women other than his wife - something forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jun 29, 2009 06:31AM Published Jun 29, 2009 03:14AM Copyright 2009 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.