Tonight: Judaism meets Jah on stage
September 1, 2006
Reggae and religion came to Matisyahu almost as a package. Back when he was 14, and still going by his given name, Matthew Miller, Matisyahu began listening to Bob Marley. The reggae king’s words of freedom, humility, connecting to one’s past, and, perhaps above all, praise for the Lord, hit a deep place. “Reggae music opened me up to [my spiritual search], and led me on the way,” said the 27-year-old Matisyahu, who makes his Jazz Aspen debut, playing the closing set today, Monday, Sept. 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the Labor Day Festival in Snowmass. “I didn’t become religious fulltime till much later. Reggae was one of the things that started me on my way.”Matisyahu, however, did not look so much into Rastafarianism, the way of living so closely associated with reggae. Instead, he began to seek out his own Jewish heritage.”The music sparked a curiosity for me in my own religion, my own history, my own roots,” said Matisyahu – the Hebrew name for Matthew – by phone from London. “I’d heard all these lines before; they were comfortable to me. I’d seen these lines in a prayer book – but they’d never appealed to me. In the context of music, it really piqued my curiosity, to look for God, explore my religion, my Judaism.”
The music and the spiritual message are even more deeply entwined for Matisyahu. He sees music itself, and particularly the reggae style, as not only a way of spreading the words of faith and uplift, but as a sacred sound in itself.”The music, reggae music, to me is the ultimate expression of prayer, praise,” he said. “In the Torah, the OldTestament, it says music sings the praises of God, the harp plays the music for the Creator. Reggae seemingly took these ideas, these direct quotes, and does it so tastefully. It’s not contrived. Reggae music gives respect to the music itself. The music itself is the praise of God.”Matisyahu does not consider his own style to begin and end with reggae. The jam band Phish has been a big influence, as has what he calls the “conscious hip-hop” of the early ’90s. He specifically cites Nas’ “It Was Written” and OutKast’s “Aquemini” as inspirations. Matisyahu’s singing style, in bursts of quick rhymes, takes as much from rap as it does reggae, while the rhythms and message remain rooted in reggae.
On the spiritual side, he hasn’t drawn only from the writings in the Torah, but also from nature. At 16, Matisyahu, who grew up in White Plains, N.Y., took a trip to Colorado and discovered the wonders of nature.”I went into the woods and really experienced, for the first time, the sense of awe at creation, being in this world, really alive in this world, and also really small,” he said. “It’s a raw feeling, a longing feeling. It was the first time I was experiencing those emotions.”Matisyahu released his debut CD, “Shake Off the Dust … Arise,” in 2004. It was with last year’s “Live at Stubbs,” recorded in Austin, Texas, that the world started singing his praises. The album, on the strength of the single “King Without a Crown,” earned gold record status. “Youth,” a studio album released this March, hit number four on the Billboard album charts. Matisyahu and his band, Roots Tonic, have been featured at the Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals this summer.Matisyahu doesn’t tone down his religious views in an effort to broaden his audience. In songs such as “Ancient Lullaby,” the opening tune on “Youth,” and “Jerusalem,” Matisyahu presents a specifically Jewish point of view, referencing the historic persecution of the Jews and the spiritual necessity to keep a Jewish presence in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But the message is not meant to be exclusive. The themes of the music are universal; a partial list recited by Matisyahu includes “being a wholesome person, thinking good thought, doing good actions, family, children, the ability to be quiet and humble to allow the space for God to emerge.” He adds that, though he finds the messages in the Torah, they are words that apply to, and can be understood, by anyone.”I think Judaism is the basis for several religions and views and ideas,” he said. “Even if I’m drawing from a Jewish perspective, it’s things that people are comfortable with, even if they’re not Jewish.”That’s the job of the lyricist, the songwriter in me, to explain these idea in a way that people can vibe with them, connect with them in an emotional way.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org