Matisyahu speaks

Life is pretty strenuous right now for Matisyahu. The Hasidic Jewish reggae artist has recently shot to international prominence, but he's finding out very quickly that his new-found fame comes at a cost. “It's hard when you're in the middle of it, to sit back and to try and enjoy it” he says of his current European tour. “It's great being in different countries and different places, but at the same time, it's a lot of work.”

And it is work that brought him to London the night before our chat, for a sold-out show at the Hammersmith Palais. It was only his second London show, and third in the UK (he played London's Scala last November, and in Manchester the night before the Hammersmith show). But what's abundantly clear in West London is that Matisyahu is already drawing a huge, devoted following. “The crowds have been really good across Europe, we're getting really similar responses to those which we got from crowds a year or two ago in the States.”

Matthew Miller's story is a fascinating one. He was born in wealthy West Chester, Pennsylvania, but moved at a young age to White Plains, New York. He attended a Jewish school, but his family were not particularly religious, and much of his youth was spent pursuing his love of music, in particular rapping, singing and beat-boxing at a weekly open-mic night. His re-discovery of his Jewish roots was inspired by the Carlebach Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Drawn in by the beautiful melodic prayers, he began exploring the spiritual aspects of Jewish music, and was inspired to take up further study in 2001 at the Hadar HaTorah Yeshiva (a school of Jewish learning specifically aimed at educating young Jewish men from more secular backgrounds). Whilst studying at the Yeshiva, he adopted the moniker of Matisyahu, the name bringing with it particular resonance. As well as being the biblical Jewish form of Matthew, Matisyahu's namesake was an heroic figure in Jewish history. He was the man who, along with his sons, led the Jewish rebellion against the Greeks in 170-166 BC.

Now living in Crown Heights, one of Brooklyn's religious communities, Matisyahu has a wife, and the recent addition of a son, appropriate given the role that his namesake's five sons played in the events in ancient Israel. “That's my joy. Having a son, there's nothing better than that, nothing more important that that. It's a spiritual thing, an emotional thing. It's a blessing.”

Striding on stage in Hammersmith, Matisyahu cuts an imposing figure. For a start, he's extremely tall at 6ft 5ins. Moreover, he is dressed in traditional Hasidic clothing. From his broad-rimmed black hat, his glasses and beard, right down to his long black overcoat, covering a white shirt, and beneath that his prayer shawl, he appears a studious and deeply spiritual man. He rarely addresses his crowd during concerts, preferring to let the music do the talking.

He opens his set with 'Lord Raise Me Up' from his 'Live At Stubbs' album, before launching into 'Time Of Your Song', with its sweet reggae harmonies. But the set doesn't really burst into life until he plays 'Jerusalem', from new record 'Youth'. Based around the words of Psalm 137 (the same psalm that inspired Boney M's 'Rivers of Babylon'), his ode to the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people is rapturously received by the crowd, many of whom sing along. It's also one of his few songs to touch on political issues, with lyrics referring to the Holocaust, as well as a lyric about the continual threat to Israel's existence. “3,000 years with no place to be and they want me to give up my milk and honey” is a line that resonates amongst the Jewish communities of London, New York and the rest of the world. Yet when we chat the following day, he refuses to be drawn on political matters.
In fact, Matisyahu's Judaism seems to hint at something deeper than politics, history and culture. “The main thing is to be involved in your community, to love your fellow person, to try and find your own connection with our Creator” he tells me. “One thing that's been with the Jewish people from the beginning until now is that we stand strong together. That's what has helped preserve the Jewish people for so long.”

During 'Warrior', in which he laments the nomadic history of the Jewish people, he breaks out his beat-boxing skills. Accompanied only by the bass guitar of Josh Werner, he starts slowly, but gradually builds pace. It's remarkably impressive, lasting for several minutes, yet a truly unusual sight. The crowd shows their massive appreciation of this religious human drum machine who is entertaining them.

He closes his set with the three strongest tracks off the new album. 'Fire of Heaven' is dub reggae of the finest order, and criticisms of his vaguely Caribbean accent seem pedantic when he is capable of producing tracks of this quality. 'Youth' (the album's title track) contains the heaviest rock riffs on the album, allowing guitarist Aaron Dugan to shine. Matisyahu closes his set with 'King Without A Crown'. His biggest hit and the song which launched his fame, it sounds fantastic in this live setting. The crowd shake the rafters, demanding his return for an encore, during which he plays 'Indestructible', which has an air of modern R'n'B within its reggae loops.

Matisyahu has been accused of being a novelty act. But there's more to him than the visual exterior. It helps that he is backed by one of the most talented and versatile groups of musicians in the world. Dugan's rock guitar gives the music some momentum, whilst Jonah David's drumming and Werner's dub basslines maintain the overall reggae sound. Matisyahu's lyrics sing of Babylon, Zion, Jerusalem – traditional themes in Jewish literature, but equally in the Caribbean reggae of Bob Marley and his contemporaries. Combined, music, lyrics and vocals create something that is absolutely unique in the modern music world.

It's true that his crowd in Hammersmith is probably two-thirds Jewish, and that he has become something of a figurehead for Jewish youths, who previously lacked any religious heroes in the mainstream. But increased coverage in the media in the UK and around the globe can only serve to earn him a wider audience.

And that means that he's going to be a very busy and hard-working man for a while to come. “We're back touring in the States after this. All summer really. We're going to be in Japan, in Australia, we're doing a bunch of festivals in June throughout Europe and some in the States as well.” And while he no doubt would love to spend more time with his wife and new-born son, he sounds excited about the prospect. Remember the name, because Matisyahu will be on a stage, radio or screen near you this summer. 2006 is the year of Hasidic reggae.

*'Youth' was released on 8th May via Sony BMG in the UK and is in all good record stores now. Matisyahu plays the Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza festivals this summer, with more dates to be announced. Thanks to Julie and Dan at Sony BMG for allowing Glasswerk to interview Matisyahu.*

words: Ben Graham
photo: Sam Paerse

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