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World Music Features    Matisyahu    World Music at Global Rhythm - The Destination for World Music
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Matisyahu
By Derek Beres

Published February 20, 2006

 

When asked about the connections between Hasidic Judaism and Rastafarianism, the tall, slender 25-year-old laughs softly. Throughout our talk he’ll reminisce about a frenzied youth of bad education and Phish tours before launching into wide-eyed speculations about G-d, devotion and the stringent discipline required for true spiritual existence. Although Matthew Miller traded dreadlocks and Birkenstocks for payos and Torah long ago, there was one thing he couldn’t forget. In fact, it was the very thing that saved him when times were troubled, and now that’s he’s found his path, the very vehicle he uses to spread the Chabad Lubavitch message: reggae music.

Matisyahu’s story begins rather normally: disturbed youth seeking deeper knowledge than his environment offered and the subsequent flight to “find” himself. That music would uplift him is another idea we all relate to, and even the fact that music wasn’t enough, still something was missing. It’s only when you see his long, lean, six-and-a-half-foot frame, fully adorned in Hassidim protocol, beatboxing and trouncing around stage spitting sly aphorisms in derelict Hebrew patois, that the word “normal” stops having meaning.

By now you may have seen him on the Jimmy Kimmel and Carson Daly shows or read articles in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post or Boston Globe. You may have even picked up his debut Shake Off The Dust…Arise on indie start-up JDub Records, a sparsely produced record harking back the days of late ’60s pre-dub/dancehall ska/reggae standards. The drum-bass-guitar-keyboard relationship sounds live, clean and certainly skilled; deep, raw Jamaican-flavored grooves fancy in humbleness. Matisyahu may be confident of his abilities, but he’s no fool: this band is tight. They create the perfect landscape for their poetic leader to canvas.

“The beginning of reggae for me was Bob Marley.” Matisyahu puts down his lunch and leans back into the couch. While his stature may appear intimidating, his demeanor is anything but. He is also a natural storyteller, connecting the specifics of his life to the universals of existence interchangeably. “In high school, when I was 14, I was rebelling a bit in school and someone turned me on to his music and there was something so appealing, besides the initial Jewish connections. I was not religious but I saw it in the words: exodus, movement of the people, we know where we’re going, we know where we’re from, we live in Babylon, we’re going to the Promised Land. All these things represented some part of me I was trying to find as a 14-year-old in a suburban high school, being disillusioned by the whole school system and Reconstructionist Judaism. Everything was missing some essential quality. Seeing Bob Marley, he seemed to have it. He wasn’t just going to play music, he was going to deliver a message.”


The JDub Records Story

 

“A lot of people think it’s some sort of ‘Jewish dub terminology.’ In actuality Jews are broken down into Ashkenazian and Sephardic. Ashi Jews are from Eastern Europe, while Sephardic Jews are mostly Middle Eastern. Americans have all these divisions, and Jdub was a term they used to denote Ashis; it was something of a putdown. When we started out it was a reclaiming of this term: the idea of hanging it high and being proud of who we are. We’re taking a racial epithet and turning it on its head.”

Given the strength of JDub Records’ debut release, Matisyahu’s Shake Off The Dust…Arise, plenty of heads will be turning to this independent East Village label. Executive Director and Label Manager Aaron Bisman dreamed of giving inventive nu-Jewish music a shot while studying music business at NYU. Spending time DJing and studying in Israel further fueled his fire, and upon returning he began the company by producing events. “The music we were playing was pulling not only Jewish influences, but made the Jewish influences the main aspect.”

Putting his business smarts to work, Bisman and partner Jacob Harris secured $60,000 in seed money from the Joshua Venture Fellowship, a two-year funding program for young Jewish entrepreneurs. Now also backed by the Natan Fund and UJC/JESNA’s Bikkurim Incubator for New Jewish Ideas, Bisman hopes to support the label from outside funding, events and record sales.

Launched in December 2002 with a memorial for that summer’s bombing of Hebrew University, JDub’s benefit featured klezmer trumpet maestro Frank London and innovative New York outfit Pharaoh’s Daughter. They raised $25,000 to start a scholarship fund in the name of a DJ friend who was killed in the attack, then spent the next two years producing shows in New York and Israel before Matisyahu’s record hit the shelves.

Upcoming is a unique project by Socalled, an inventive producer whose Hiphopkhasene (Piranha) pitted him against violinist/jungle DJ Sophie Solomon. “He self-released this half-finished project called The Socalled Seder,” Bisman says. “It took the first night of Passover sound collage over hip-hop beats. We’re re-releasing a new version in the spring called Hip-Hop Hagada.” Whatever land they’re from, this new Jewish culture is creating a world all its own.

 

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