Bono wears a token given to him by the late Pope John Paul II, while Kanye walks with Jesus. Musicians who publicly acknowledge their faith don’t face a flogging in album sales, yet even high rollers would have lost a few greenbacks predicting the popularity of Hasidic beat-boxer and reggae star Matisyahu, playing at the McInnes Room on Saturday.
A Leno appearance, mounting magazine features and a Seder invitation from Madonna aside, Matisyahu is just a talented 26-year-old musician—who happens to practise Hasidic Judaism. Strictly devout, Matisyahu plays in clubs, but doesn’t drink alcohol or do drugs; tucked behind a full beard, he dresses modestly in a traditional dark suit, hat and white shirt; he observes Sabbath (no Friday night performances) and gave up stage diving, just in case he accidentally touches a woman, forbidden by Hasidic law.
Patched through by a New York-based publicist as he’s about to board yet another plane—he’s been on the road for the past couple of years—Matisyahu admits that touring can take its toll. “I just ride the waves. You just try and get through it. It’s a job—there’s a mission here, and when you have a mission, you have to work hard to accomplish it,” he says, his voice dressed in a sharp New York accent. “I have a close-knit community of religious people across the world who help me with kosher food. My lifestyle helps me to keep grounded. When you’re constantly moving, it’s hard to be grounded.”
Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller) emerged out of movement. A rebellious hippie teenager, he favoured Birkenstocks and Bob Marley over school. At 16, he spent a semester in Israel, where he discovered the intensity of Hasidim men praying. Returning home to White Plains, New York, he was disillusioned, and on the first day of senior year, Matisyahu hopped in a friend’s Volkswagen bus, living in parks, panhandling and following Phish around the country.
Months later, Matisyahu checked into a wilderness school in Oregon, where he studied reggae, hip-hop and beat-boxing, performing at a weekly open mic night.
“It’s hard to understand why I’m attracted to certain kinds of music—it’s instinctual,” he says. “The beat-boxing came with practice and naturally. I had a PA system in my bedroom with a delay-effect unit. I’d turn the volume up all the way and sit in there for hours trying out different things. Basically, just trying to make music without playing any instruments.”
After an intense period of prayer and solitude, Matisyahu joined a popular Crown Heights Hasidic community, releasing his debut album, Shake off the Dust…ARISE in 2004, and a year later, Live at Stubb’s. He’s adapted a style of reggae that would appeal to Marley or Tosh fans, mixed with a pop sensibility that will make Police fans feel right at home. Deeply personal, the title track of his new album, Youth, due out this May, draws from Matisyahu’s own experiences.
“The song is about rebellion and youth,” he explains. “There was a quote that I took from the Rebbe Lubavitch, the head of the Lubavitch Hasidic group where I live. The quote is, ‘The youth will reject our spirit of falseness, like a body rejects poison.’ He uses that to explain rebellion and youth—basically, when the youth rebel, they’re coming at it from a positive place. They sense there’s a certain falseness about them, and they’re just trying to get to the core of things.”
In some ways, Hasidic Judaism itself is a rebellious counterculture. Founded by Jewish mystics in 18th century Europe, in protest of the religion’s growing intellectual focus, Hasidism uses ecstatic song and dance to connect with spiritualism—also the heart of Matisyahu’s energetic live show.
“I think people are actually looking for something with meaning, and they don’t always know where to find it, or they get confused or caught up with different things,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about, trying to find that pure place in the world, or that core place in yourself in the world. It’s not easy to get there, so people do all kinds of things that aren’t pure to get there. It finally became clear to me the way to get to it.”
Matisyahu, April 1 at McInnes Room (all-ages/licensed), 6136 University, 9pm, $17.50/$20, 494-3820