Caribbean Beat Magazine

Music buzz (September/October 2006)

Matisyahu proves Jewish reggae is no gimmick; the Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan and Jazz Festival turns four

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Matisyahu. Photo courtesy Dan Mandell
  • Youth debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 charts. Courtesy Dan Mandell

Songs for thirsty souls

Three years ago, just when I thought New York had lost its capacity to surprise me, an intriguing invitation arrived. It was to a benefit for a film in progress: a documentary detailing the links between reggae culture and Judaism. The film-maker, Monica Haim, quickly became my guide into the underground world of Jewish reggae. Yes, there is such a thing as Jewish reggae. And it’s about more than just swapping out wo-yo-yo-yo for oy.

Haim and I met up at Lot 61, a terminally hip night spot, where the cosmo swillers stepped aside for an evening to let an unlikely group of musicians take centre-stage. The spectacle was surreal. Reggae’s universal appeal was not new to me, but this was beyond crossover. Yarmulkes outnumbered Rastafarian tams on the performers and the audience. The familiar booming bass lines were there, but the accompanying lyrics came in Hebrew and Yiddish (save for the occasional “pull up” and “wheel”.) Haim’s excitement quashed my bemusement. “These guys are good,” she said, “but the real thing is this kid called Matisyahu.”

Back then, Haim was one of the few devotees of a slight, bespectacled 22-year-old dancehall/reggae artist who just happened to be a Hasidic Jew — from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighbourhood known for racial tension, not cultural fusion. A few nights later, in a matchbox-size club across town, Haim and I watched Matisyahu ride dancehall, reggae, and rap rhythms, wearing the black hat, black overcoat, uncut beard, and curly earlocks common to men of the Hasidic faith.

Fast forward three years. Matisyahu now plays for sold-out crowds and television audiences of millions. No longer on the fringes of reggae, he is, judging by his album sales, indeed the real thing: a walking, talking, chanting, high-stepping billboard for the collapse of musical boundaries. The live version of his single “King Without a Crown” hit the modern rock top ten. His latest album, Youth, debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 charts, joining last year’s Live at Stubbs, already in the number-36 spot. The feat makes him the only artist with two albums currently in the Billboard top 40. Youth reached number one on Billboard’s Internet album chart, the highest ever position for any reggae artist, including Sean Paul, who held the old record at number seven.

Let’s be blunt. There’s an undeniable freak show element to Matisyahu’s popularity. He engenders a curiosity that causes some to cringe and some to cheer even before he’s sung a note. That he gets the kind of media interest most reggae artists pray for begs the question: is it deserved? If Matisyahu were from Cross Roads, Kingston, and not Crown Heights, Brooklyn, would the media care? But the urge to write him off as a gimmick or, worse yet, a cultural carpetbagger fades when you see him live. His pitch may not be perfect, his patois not well practised, but Matisyahu’s heart is definitely in the right place.

Matisyahu and I met in a venue perfect for cultural collisions — New York’s Grand Central Station — where he explained his passion for reggae. Born Matthew Paul Miller, he grew up in White Plains, New York. His stage name, Matisyahu, is the Ashkenazi Hebrew and Yiddish pronunciation of the Biblical name Matthew. It means “gift of God”. But he doesn’t pretend to be God’s gift to reggae music. He’s simply trying to reach others, the way the voice of a man he had never seen reached him as a lonely teenager.

Growing up as one of the few Jews in a predominantly white suburb, Matisyahu found in a borrowed Bob Marley album a salve for his alienation. With Marley’s repeated references to Zion and other Old Testament iconography, says Matisyahu, “I thought he was talking to me. I felt alone and different, and everything he said made sense.” Matisyahu became and remains an avid reggae fan. He ranks among his favourite albums Marley’s Babylon By Bus and Natty Dread and Sizzla’s Black Woman and Child. But the more he listened to Marley, the more he realised that his hero’s true message was not about embracing Marley’s Jamaican or Rastafarian culture, but about going inward and embracing one’s own heritage and religion. Though he was raised a Reconstructionist Jew by parents he describes as not particularly religious, Miller took Marley’s inspiration to heart and turned to Orthodox Judaism.

He studied the Torah at Hadar Hatorah, a yeshiva (Hebrew school) for Jewish men with limited background in the knowledge or practice of Judaism. While there, he wrote and recorded his first album, struggling with the call of his faith and the seemingly secular pull of a music career. Ultimately, he decided to fuse his two passions, to use music as a vehicle through which he would urge young people to return to the principles of their faith and live a more meaningful life.

He quickly became a fixture on the Jewish reggae circuit, joining stars like King Django, a pioneer in fusing ska and reggae with traditional Jewish music. But his popularity has eclipsed any of his predecessors and, to the chagrin of his detractors, he’s credited with making a brand of reggae that religious people aren’t ashamed to listen to. There are no odes to ganja on a Matisyahu album. And forget about lyrics that denigrate women — as a Hasidic Jew, Matisyahu can’t even shake hands with women, as I learned when our interview came to a close.

His eponymous band has a hybrid sound that mixes reggae, rap, and a little rock and roll. Up front, Matisyahu raps, beatboxes, and chants both in the style of Jamaican deejays and in the Hazzan style of Jewish cantors. On his reggae tracks, his style emulates traditional roots, dub, and old school dancehall artists. His pop reggae style won’t satisfy hardcore reggae fans, and it’s not meant to. The musical novelty aside, it’s his lyrics — which cover topics from the Holocaust to high school, identity, struggle, and personal triumph — that have won fans from inside and outside the Jewish faith and from all musical genres.

Or as one particularly earnest fan wrote on, “You don’t have to be Rasta, or Hisadic [sic] Jewish to love this music — but it might help to be soul-thirsty — and there’s a lot of that going around right now.”

Kellie Magnus


Pan in yuh jazz

Carnival. Oil. Brian Lara. The Soca Warriors.

If they aren’t already, soon music festivals may be on the list of things Trinidad and Tobago is best known for. Contributing to the twin isles’ growing reputation for gathering choice musical acts in one place is the Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan and Jazz Festival.

Organisers call the event the world’s “premier steelpan and jazz festival”. From October 23 to 28, audiences will get a chance test the truth of the boast, when the fourth edition of the festival comes to various venues in Trinidad.

“At the end of the festival, people who come would have witnessed the crème de la crème of steelpan exponents of anywhere on this little rock called Planet Earth,” enthuses Mortimer Baptiste, a member of the Queen’s Royal College Foundation. The charity, which raises money to aid in the running of the boys’ secondary school, organises the festival with state and corporate assistance.

The musical showcase has featured acclaimed steelbands and pannists — Exodus, Desperadoes, Phase II, Robert Greenidge, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, and Andy Narell among them — alongside choirs and jazz, rapso, R&B, and calypso artists. Al Jarreau, David Rudder, the Lydian Singers, David “Fathead” Newman, and Steel Pulse have made notable appearances.

“What we have attempted to do is to utilise the pan in the various genres,” says foundation chairman Ainsley Mark. He and Baptiste are QRC alumni. “You have the pan-jazz, you have the choirs . . . But the key to everything is the pan.”

The festival started in 1996 as the one-night “In Celebration of Excellence” concert. Through audience and artist interest it grew into the three-night Pan Royale, then the present six-day event.

Over the years, it’s fattened its programme with workshops for young musicians, tour packages, free concerts, and a grand, musically diverse final “festival concert”. The last two additions, it is hoped, will lure new fans. This year, in another attempt to widen its audience, the foundation will hire soca, hip-hop, and reggae acts.

They’ve retreated from some areas of expansion. After debuting there in 2003, the festival didn’t go to Tobago last year and won’t this year. It’s been cut from ten days in 2004 to eight last year and six this year. The two-year-old Plymouth Jazz Festival, which this year featured Sting, P Diddy, and other big pop names, is partly to blame.

“We thought we ought not to go in with the little steelpan thing right after Stevie Wonder and Natalie Cole,” says Mark, before giving another reason for leaving out the smaller island. “Tobago is a difficult place to go to unless you have significant funding. You literally have to take everything to Tobago — stage, sound . . .”

Trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard, best known for writing the scores to Malcolm X, Barbershop, and other popular films, leads the festival’s 2006 line-up, which also includes the by-now-expected Sharpe, Greenidge, Narell and his band Sakesho, steelbands Desperadoes, Exodus, All Stars, Phase II, and Fonclaire, and new faces Liam Teague and his band Panoramic and Canadian Jeremy Ledbetter and his band Canefire. “We really have the best of the best,” says Baptiste.

“Every single entertainer we’ve had wants to come back,” Mark observes. “It has to be something we’re doing right.”

Erline Andrews

The 2006 Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan and Jazz Festival runs from 23 to 28 October. For further information, visit