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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Brooklyn's Ultra-Orthodox Jew Matisyahu brings unorthodox Hasidic reggae to Winter Olympics

Brooklyn's own Matisyahu -- the ultra-Orthodox Jew with the unorthodox calling -- wowed the Vancouver Olympics Monday night with his own unique brand of Hasidic reggae.

The 30-year-old from Crown Heights marries Jamaican reggae, hip hop and rap to the religious ecstasy of the Hasidim to great effect: He currently has three of the top ten albums on the iTunes reggae charts.

"I celebrate shabbos, keep kosher and pray every day, but I have another musical life," said the former Matthew Miller, whose stage moniker is the Hebrew version of his first name.

"Bob Marley was it for me."

His latest album, "Light," topped reggae charts for over 10 weeks, an unheard-of Caucasian crossover into traditionally West Indian cultural territory.

NBC chose its lead single, the catchy and inspirational "One Day," to soundtrack its promotional ads for the Olympics in Vancouver, where Matisyahu performed last night in Yaletown.

"I feel really blessed," Matisyahu said the other day after bringing down the house at his sons' day-care center. He and his wife, Talia, are the parents of Shalom, 3, and Laivy, 4.

Most Matisyahu gigs attract an older, more diverse crowd.

His annual Festival of Light, a series of packed clubland concerts celebrating Chanukkah, drew rebel yeshiva boys, boozy frat packs and jam-band regulars digging a more spiritual groove.

"Kids who are searching, who aren't in touch with their heritage, relate to me," he said, stroking his long curls and full beard. "I'm always moved."
Matisyahu is no stranger to wandering in the wilderness.

After dropping out of high school, the White Plains kid from a secular Jewish home dropped acid and hitchhiked across the nation following the Grateful Dead-inspired jam band Phish.

"I was on a quest for spiritual meaning, for some kind of godliness," he said, recalling the days when he free-styled under the name "MC Truth."

"I knew I was Jewish, but I didn't know what it meant."

The hippie became a Hasid and married the Hasidic Talia. They live just a block away from Chabad Lubavitch, the center for Hasidim in New York City.

He acknowledged that bohemians normally flee conservative enclaves, instead of seeking them out.

"It's a reversal," he said. "What you have here is a real spiritual community, not just religious rules and restrictions. It's creatively inspiring."

After laboring on the jam band circuit, Matisyahu broke through with "King Without A Crown," a Modern Rock top 10 hit. Collaborations with Trey Anastasio of Phish, jazz production big Bill Laswell and reggae rhythm legends Sly and Robbie have given him a legitimacy that won't quit.

He has heard the LA music industry's siren call, but dismisses it.

"I love Brooklyn," Matisyahu said. "The realness of New York. You can't get that anywhere else."

1 comment:

  1. I remember the first time I hear to Matisyahu's music, I was not so sure what it was, because it is so many things at the same time: reggae, rock, praising, rap, jew, semi-rastafarian... But the guy is absolutely great.