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Matisyahu’s music: an amalgam of religion and mixed genres

BY ERIC SUNDERMANN | JULY 02, 2009 7:20 AM

Hasidic Jewish reggae mixed with beat boxing, hip-hop, and rock ’n’ roll. It may seem strange, but artist Matisyahu makes it work.

“I like to make music,” Matisyahu said. “I don’t think about the genre. It’s more of an instinctual gravitation, so at the moment of the show there is a gravitation what would be considered reggae music, there are moments of what would be considered hip-hop music. It’s just the feel or the flow of the music.”

Matisyahu takes 80/35’s Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Main Stage following Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks at 5:45 p.m. Friday. The New York artist Matisyahu is a member of the strict Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish sector. He was not raised religiously, and he rebelled as a teenager — dropping out of high school and traveling the country to attend Phish concerts. After pulling his life together, he became an Orthodox Jew and began creating music — scoring the top-40 hit “King Without a Crown.”

Matisyahu brings a dynamic show to the 80/35 stage. Although his records blend hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll, folk, and reggae, his live shows have a heavy reggae emphasis.

“[The live show] has moments of high, high volume, moments of more quiet, more low volume,” he said. “The shows have a lot of improvisation — no two shows are the same. Songs, which are the same songs, are played differently night to night, different improvisations, different moments happen.”

He sometimes finds obstacles with combining his faith and career.

“There are certain questions raised,” Matisyahu said. “For me, religion is not foolproof. It is the path I’ve chosen for myself at the moment, and I continually choose that path … As things come up that might be considered obstacles, or go against certain rules in my religion, it makes me question aspects of the religion, and I decide whether or not that’s the way I want to live my life.”

Matisyahu’s lyrics provide insight not only to religion, but life.

“My first record, ‘Shake Off The Dust,’ [had] songs that were very much influenced by new found faith, and the highs, excitements, and the basic ideas that are found in religion, Judaism, and God,” he said. “Those were a lot of times influenced by me looking at the Psalms or reading through the Torah, and finding concepts, ideas, or lines that were inspiring to me, and then writing about them.”
His next album is a progression into darker themes and deals with complicated topics. He cites Rabbi Nachman’s early 1800s writings as inspiration. Nachman’s work deals with the insanity of God and this world.

“In terms of faith, how does faith work with death, and how does death play a part?” Matisyahu said. “[Some of the themes on the record are] the continuous theme of the search of the desert, of redemption, of awareness and coming to terms with the depth of the darkness of this world, the physical reality of this world, and where God is in all of it, and where we are in all of it with God and this world.”


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