The music industry is full of novel personalities, stories and gimmicks, but the 26-year-old Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu—who visited Harvard’s Chabad House on Sunday, February 13—is undoubtedly one of a kind. Before stepping onstage at the Avalon in front of a full house, Matisyahu dined with 40 Harvard students and fielded diverse questions about his faith and his music.
As he entered with his infant son pressed against his chest, Matisyahu was met with spontaneous and jubilant applause from a surprised group of students who did not expect the singer, who wears the traditional payos of side curls, to be well over six feet tall,
Yet it his music that is most remarkable: he fuses Marley-like beats and melodies with a wordless Hasidic vocal scat style known as "niggun" and lyrics that extol spiritual devotion to God. Matisyahu’s second CD, "Live at Stubb’s" jetted up the charts last year, eventually climbing into the Top 40 with over 100,000 copies sold.
FROM RUN-AWAY TO REGGAE
Matisyahu’s history is as compelling as his music. Once a troubled run-away, he found peace in Judaism and purpose in music.
Born into a Reconstructionist Jewish family in White Plains, New York, Matisyahu says he first began to feel a resonance with faith when he traveled to Israel at the age of 16. He began to hone his musical abilities while enrolled in a wilderness program for at-risk teenagers.
Following a two year stint at the New School in Manhattan, Matisyahu studied with Hasidic rabbis at New York University. Within six months, he had changed his original name—Matthew Miller—to Matisyahu.
When he emerged from his spiritual cocoon, Matisyahu was bursting with cross-genre musical ideas. He formed a band and fused his love of music with his love for God.
When asked by a student at Chabad about his success, Matisyahu responds, "I just focused on making good music. There’s God helping, plus the music and the fans. All the pieces came together."
As for the seeming novelty of his musical style, Matisyahu explains to the Crimson, "A lot of reggae songs reference the Old Testament." To demonstrates the underlying strains of Judaism in reggae, Matisyahu recites verses from Bob Marley’s "Exodus": "We know where we’re going/ We know where we’re from /We live in Babylon /We’re going to the promised land."
By any measure, Matisyahu’s sold-out concert at Avalon last Sunday was a great success. Though he remained in the spotlight for the duration of the concert, his band grabbed the attention, exploring the boundaries of songs through jams, extended guitar solos, and a particularly exuberant, crowd-pleasing drum solo. But it was Matisyahu’s beatbox showcase that most consistently captivated the spectators.
Concert-goers after the show were generally euphoric. Ruthie A. Goodman, 18 said, "The show was very compelling. You can connect with someone who sings about the Jewish God."
Despite the decidedly positive atmosphere of the evening, one rabidly enthusiastic fan got too carried away.