With his luminous anthem "One Day," American reggae star Matisyahu joined the ranks of great artists like John Lennon and Bob Marley who infused their music with righteous, uplifting messages of hope.
Eminently catchy with its soaring peace chorus, "One Day" brought him national attention beyond the boundaries of reggae's typical appeal, and has attracted some of our artists like Barry Flanagan and Gail Swanson, who have added it to their repertoires. Flanagan has reported HAPA's version brought an audience to tears when it was played at Hiroshima.
A key track on his most recent studio album, "Light," this crossover hit was selected as NBC's official theme song for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"I wanted to write a song that basically sums up who I am and what I believe," Matisyahu says of "One Day's" genesis. "I wanted to get the essential Matisyahu. I wanted to make a song that was more beat driven, an anthem that was really accessible to the youth."
Heading to Maui to perform on Sunday at "The Republik Music Festival" at the MACC alongside reggae stars Steel Pulse from the U.K., the Californian bands Rebelution and The Dirty Heads and Hawaii's The Green, Matisyahu just released a brand new CD, "Live at Stubb's Vol. II," which captures his ecstatic shows.
Backed by the amazing Dub Trio from Brooklyn, "Stubbs II" opens with the ancient chant and ethereal/trance sound of "Kodesh," before segueing into the crowd-rousing, Police-flavored, rocking/reggae raver "Got No Water."
Matisyahu and the Dub Trio perform on Sunday (at 7 p.m.) at The Republik Music Festival at the MACC's Amphitheater & Pavilion. Steel Pulse headlines at 8 p.m. The fest includes Rebelution, The Dirty Heads and The Green. It's presented as part of Hard Rock Caf's 40th anniversary celebration. Gates open at 3 p.m., show begins at 4 p.m. Tickets are $39.50 in advance, $45 day of show (plus applicable fees)
"Gaining knowledge of God while you're gaining money," he fervently sings. "Fill up yourself with the light of his majesty, in a world of separation that's the only way to be."
And so it goes, with Matisyahu inflaming and inspiring, preaching from the well of mystical Judaism, just like Bob Marley and the leading Rastafarians, who drew on wisdom from the Old Testament.
Returning to Stubb's BBQ in Austin, Texas, where he recorded his first live album (which attained No. 1 on Billboard's reggae chart with sales of more than 500,000 copies), "Stubbs II" spotlights this Hasidic Jewish beatbox reggae-rapper's evolution.
Working with the Dub Trio has led to a more expansive sound that emphasizes improvisation and dynamic expression.
"These guys are just good, salt-of-the-earth people, and in this industry it's not easy to find people who just love what they're doing and appreciate performing and traveling," he says of the band.
"Our musical taste is on the same page. I never have to say can you play more this way or that way. They have a big sound, but there's a lot of space, it fits so well. I'd played a whole summer with the guys and our sound had developed and evolved and I wanted to show people what it was. It's still Matisyahu, but it's a different Matisyahu than the first record. There's been real growth and I wanted to showcase that."
Reviewing one of his shows, the Chicago Tribune noted: "Responses to Hebrew prayer chants don't usually involve a crowd screaming woooooo, but when Hasidic reggae sensation Matisyahu does it, people listen, and people throw their arms in the air in rhythm accordingly. From start to finish Matisyahu raptured the crowd with his soul-shaking brand of dancehall reggae, a show that captures both the jam band vibe of Phish and the ska-punk of Sublime. By the time radio hit 'King Without A Crown' was played, the crowd was in a frenzy: pogoing up and down, throwing hands in syncopation, screaming, singing along."
Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu's musical quest began around the age of 17, when he left home to follow jam bands like Phish. During his college days he became entranced with the music of reggae artists like Capelton, Sizzla and Buju Banton, and the legendary Bob Marley.
"I learned how to write songs listening to Bob Marley and artists like Sizzla," he recalls. "That's how I learned how to incorporate the Bible and bring it all together with conscious lyrics. I kept going and giving it my own spin, being that my inspiration comes from Judaism."
Fusing reggae with hip-hop and pop-rock, his following swelled with the release of his sophomore CD, "Live at Stubbs." His Grammy-nominated third album, "Youth," in 2006, sold 120,000 copies in its first week, making it the highest-selling reggae debut in 15 years. Then came the "Light" album.
With help from members of Sublime and Fishbone and reggae's elite rhythm section of Sly and Robbie, Matisyahu crafted his most adventurous, versatile work, concocting radio-friendly hip-hop tracks, memorable alt-rockers, and soulful ballads.
The album derived from his years studying the Jewish Torah, with an emphasis of the story of the "Seven Beggars," by Kabbalist mystic Rabbi Rebbe Nachman.
"A lot of the record was based on a story by Rabbi Nachman, who lived in the 1700s in Eastern Ukraine," he explains. "Now I have a new record based on another mystic, his grandfather, Baal Shem Tov, who was the first Hassidic mystic, also from Ukraine. I spent a week at his gravesite writing lyrics. The next record I might get into the Zohar, the Kabbalah. I like to pick a certain theme and center around that."
The new album will be released next year. "I'm working on the concept record with the Dub Trio," he continues. "And I've also been working with a Top-40 producer named Kojak and we've been writing songs together. It's a different feel, much more of a celebratory, fun record, as opposed to the other record which is a little bit darker."
Before then, he's hoping to release a new "summer" song, "Sunshine," which he says we'll love in Hawaii. "Keep your ears tuned."
Blending conscious lyrics with uplifting music, Matisyahu serves as a meaningful antidote to the shallow nature and negativity in much of popular music.
"I feel like I have a purpose and an opportunity to inspire people, to create music that's meaningful in their lives," he says. "I was put here to create music. I love to get onstage and perform and get in the studio and make music. It's amazing to connect with people with music."
With a foundation rooted in reggae, Matisyahu is furthering a tradition that links his faith with Jamaica's Rastafarian artists.
"For me it's like full circle because Rastafarianism is born out of Judaism, it borrowed fundamentally from the Old Testament, which is the basis of Judaism," he notes.
"It's a weird circle that happened. I had very little interest in Judaism growing up, as a real spiritual journey. I was always searching for my identity, trying to figure out who I am. Reggae music is what really got me to figure out there was something in Judaism. Bob Marley's words about identity and culture was an initial seed planted to get me to understand my heritage and culture. At the same time obviously the music had an impact on me. So I was able to then take the music and go back to the Old Testament from a different context."
One of the U.K's greatest reggae bands Steel Pulse still fields founding core members, lead vocalist David Hinds and keyboardist/backing vocalist Selwyn Brown. Hinds composed most of the band's popular songs including "Taxi Driver," "Steppin' Out," "Ravers," "Earth Crisis," and "Worth His Weight in Gold (Rally Round)."
The recent passing of legendary musician/poet Gil Scott Heron prompted Hinds to post this eulogy on the band's website: "Gil Scott Heron has been one of my biggest influences in regards to the career I chose in music. He was the one that alerted me that American music was not just about partying, having a good time and baby how many ways I love you.
"The political edge in his music helped me to understand the many facades of American society before we, Steel Pulse, even arrived on American soil. I'm sure a man of his caliber often thought his utterances were like a cry in the wilderness.
"So many acts have found overwhelming fame and fortune yet could not walk in his shoes when it comes to the art of poetry to music. I can't think of anyone that had the gift that he had putting words together in such a masterful manner."