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From Yah to Yahweh


Just before Christmas became a concert record Live at Stubb's (JDub Records / SonyBMG) by Matisyahu released in Norway, but it received zero attention. No wonder, since this is a live record from an American reggae artist with just one album in the boot, the debut Shake Off the Dust… Arise (JDub Records 2004). In the US, on the other hand, Matisyahu Miller is about to become a star. Last year, he performed a 52-long, sold-out United States tour, and Live at Stubb's went straight into third place on Billboard's reggae list. He has signed a contract with multinational SonyBMG, and is about to record his second studio album with bass giant Bill Laswell in the producer's chair.

youth rebellion

What is so special about this Matisyahu? He is a stylish reggae vocalist with a solid three-man band in the back, and even though his voice fails a bit in the most low-key ballads, both toaster, rapper and beatboxer, he is very confident. But what really makes Matisyahu stand out in the crowd is his Jewish background. He belongs to the Hasidic faith, and on stage he poses with tousled beards, traditional Jewish clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, praises Judaism and sings reggae songs about ancient Israel and Egypt – in English, Yiddish and Hebrew.

It may sound like a sketch, but this is bloody serious for Matisyahu. "This is no gimmick. That's my life. My life is no gimmick, ”says Matisyahu himself in an interview with

From three ghettos

Now there is no straight line from a traditional Jewish upbringing to reggae, something Matisyahu is a good proof of. Born as Matthew Miller 26 years ago, he grew up in California and New York, as part of a traditional Jewish-American family. He revolted early in his youth, embracing the Grateful Dead and the neohippie movement, before returning to his childhood faith and embarking on a pilgrimage to Israel. He failed to find peace in the regular school system, and ended up at a wilderness school in Oregon – where he of all things embraced the very urban forms of music hip hop and reggae. Back in New York, he began visiting the Carlebach Shul Synagogue, where he developed his musical interests and became interested in the Hasidic branch of the Jewish faith. This originated in Eastern Europe in the 1700th century as a counter-reaction to the more educated worship that was practiced, and Hasidism emphasizes more emotion-driven worship through song, dance and music. Matthew changed his name to Matisyahu, and he was still only 19 years old.

And it is not really that far from the Yahweh of the Rastafarians to the Yahweh of the Jews, or from Matisyahu's praises of Yahweh to the warnings of the Rastafarians about the fall of Babylon into a sea of ​​flames. Rastafarianism, which is so important to several reggae artists, was born among Jamaica's poor in the 1930s, and is strongly influenced by the Old Testament. It's as it is called on the website Matisyahu unites the culture of three completely different ghettos – in Jewish Poland, The Bronx in New York and Trenchtown in Kingston, Jamaica – while he manages to maintain the uniqueness of all three.

Dawn revolt

Over the years, Hasidism has become as rigid as the faiths it rebelled against, but it is a burgeoning internal revolt and a desire to rebuild the revolutionary romance it sprang from. Matisyahu can undoubtedly be considered part of this rebellion, because embracing the Jamaica reggae is probably not the most popular among more conservative-minded Jews.

But even though Matisyahu uses ancient Hasidic melodies and Hebrew hymns, there are not very clear traces of his Jewish roots. The records are closer to reindeer spike roots reggae, with a strong influence from modern dancehall and hip hop. The Jewish faith is first and foremost expressed in the appearance and the lyrics, which are mainly god-worshiping, uplifting or moralizing – without it feeling intrusive or preachy. Matisyahu is no index finger swinger, and at concerts he often breaks loose in both beat boxing and stage diving. The music is good enough for Matisyahu to be the best on the international reggae scene, even though he is probably not quite on a par with the greatest from Jamaica yet.

There are several Jewish rappers, but Matisyahu is now in the process of uniting a generation of young Jewish Americans in a way the rappers have not yet mastered. He appeals to several musical clans, both to the hip hop people, hard reggae fans, alternative rockers and neohippies, and has played with artists such as De La Soul, The Allman Brothers, Dave Matthews Band and the biggest of today's reggae fighters from Jamaica. In this way, he is busy recording the thread of 1960s folk singer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who united the hippies' outlook with traditional Jewish music and outlook. Matisyahu is unlikely to grow up in Norway, but in the far more Jewish United States he can quickly become a name to be expected in 2006.

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