“Jews should get a dollar off their tickets,” bellowed Iowa City jazz saxophonist Saul Lubaroff as he walked into club, ready to see Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu (Lubaroff is Jewish as well.)
It was 8:15 pm on a Sunday night. The doors opened at 8:00 pm. Doug Robeson, the bartender, booker of the talent, and noted leader of the retro-rock band The Diplomats of Solid Sound, just smiled wryly and looked around the room. The early attendees all shared something in common: They were local Jews who rarely ventured into smoky nightclubs. They took up the cheap molded plastic chairs and sat, sipping cokes out of small plastic cups and waiting for the show to begin. It wouldn’t start for another two hours. The reggae crowd, like the regulars, knew that.
The reggae aficionados entered approximately 90 minutes later and ordered bottles of Red Stripe and pitchers of cheap beer. Before the show started it was easy to distinguish the two sets of audience members. The Jews sat and drank soda. The reggae fans stood, quaffing suds.
Advertisements for the show billed Matisyahu as the world’s leading Hasidic reggae musician, a left-handed compliment at best. (Quick, name another Hasidic reggae artist!) The billing suggested the inherent novelty of the act. Hasids dress and live conservatively by modern standards. Reggae people wear colorful clothes and profess liberal philosophies. Put the two opposing cultures together and what one quickly learns is how much the two traditions actually share. Both are dissident, spiritual subcultures in opposition to mainstream values and both share a common set of myths and stories. Reggae followers consider themselves Israelites and reggae music often makes reference to the Old Testament. The twist here is that Matisyahu is a Hasid doing reggae rather than a Rasta singing about the lord Moses.
There was no opening act. Matisyahu’s band, a three-piece combo that featured a drummer, an electric bass player, and an electric guitar player, hit the stage shortly after 10:00 pm. The individuals were clean-shaven, wore t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers and did not appear distinctively Jewish. The band jammed reggae style for more than 20 minutes with the instrumentalists taking turns soloing. The drummer beat the drums hard, often doing slow rolls across the snare and toms. The bassist enjoyed hitting notes on the lowest end of the scale to add a heavy dub bottom. The guitarist had at least nine pedals on the floor to add effects to his strumming, which ranged from short, scratchy staccato rhythms to long, loopy, spacey structures. The crowd remained subdued and indifferent until Matisyahu climbed onto stage. Then everyone began to pay attention.
Long, lanky, and bearded, Matisyahu looked like a young Abe Lincoln with eyeglasses. He was dressed in the conventional Hasidic style. He wore a black fedora, dark suit and a white shirt whose tail stuck out revealing his tzitzits (fringes of his prayer shawl) underneath.
Matisyahu’s vocal style resembled chanting more than conventional singing. He began each song in Hebrew, and then repeated the words in English. He introduced many of the songs as “written as a song of praise by King David,” but he rarely sang an entire psalm. Instead he would just sing the opening four or five lines, and frequently restate short phrases and sounds as if they were a holy mantra.
There was a great similarity between Matisyahu’s utterances and typical reggae lyrics. For example, when the Hasid began singing “Chop ‘em down, chop ‘em down, chop ‘em down” over and over again, one could not help but be reminded of Bob Marley’s classic “Small Axe”. Other songs repeated lines like “Raise me up from the ground / I’ve been down too long”, and “I will fight with all of my soul / all of my heart / all of my might” both of which are reminiscent of common reggae tunes. This is not accidental, as reggae uses the same Old Testament sources as lyrical inspiration.
Perhaps the strangest resemblance, which seems somewhat coincidental, has to do with both the Jamaican and Yiddish patois’ use of the exclamation “oy”. Matisyahu would croon “oy, oy, oy” in three/four rhythm between the verses—something reggae artists commonly do, but in a slightly different way, more like “oy, yo, oy, yo” (think of Marley’s classic “Buffalo Soldiers”).
Matisyahu also preached to the crowd. At one point he got down in a catcher’s crouch and started to sermonize. “According to Hasidic philosophy, every person, every being, even every inanimate object has a soul, an inner rhythm, a life force,” he said. “This is the part of Hashem (the Lord) that makes us all one, a unity, and brings us light. Our job is to illuminate the darkness with our light. It is our true mission.” Matisyahu then began chant in Hebrew. He also recited the holiest Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma, before the night was through.
But not everything Matisyahu did was spiritual. At one point he showed off his Brooklyn chops (“this is something I learned in Crown Heights”) and began sputtering, spitting, and making sounds like a human beat box. The crowd responded equally to his religious and secular utterances. Matisyahu certainly made converts of a few from the crowd, but whether it was to reggae or to Judaism is impossible to say.