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Among Jewish rock artists whose music deals with religious subjects, Matisyahu is a legend, and his arrival in Israel for shows this week puts his accomplishments in the limelight. With club gigs all over North America, five shows as the opening act for former Phish guitarist Trey Anistasio, network television appearances and some high-profile hippie and reggae festivals under his belt, the newly religious Lubavich hassidic reggae superstar has accomplished what no one else of his ilk has, and has broken into the world-wide popular music scene.
Other Jewish music performers have struggled to achieve anything approaching Matisyahu's crossover appeal. Jerusalem-based knit-kippa messianic jammers Aharit Hayamim have high hopes that their new album, currently in production, will appeal to secular Israeli audiences in the way that contemporary pan-spiritual acts like Sheva and Shotei Hanevuah have resonated with the post-India crowd. But their pro-settler bent and theocratic leanings make Aharit Hayamim's ability to pull it off questionable. New York's Soulfarm is becoming somewhat known in world-beat hippie jam band fan circles, mostly for its propensity for Grateful Dead covers, but the band still draws a mostly religious crowd. Living in Los Angeles but working all over the world, The Moshav Band has recently secured a contract with Sony and is currently recording its first major label release with former Guster and Barenaked Ladies producer Ron Aniello, so time will tell the limits of Moshav's breakout potential.
But almost everyone working in the "Jewish music" genre is relegated to the limited market of Jewish community-related gigs in North America (at Hillel Houses, Jewish Commmunity Centers, and youth group conventions), religious-friendly events in Israel (the Beit Shemesh Festival, the Am Yisrael Chai tour), and surprisingly few distribution channels for CD sales (local Jewish bookstores, Noam and GalPaz outlets, internet stores like mostlymusic.com or cdbaby.com).
Even the mighty Blue Fringe, rumored to have received a sizable check from the New York-based religious distribution giant Sameach Music, are sticking to Jewish song themes (often sung in Hebrew) that limit the chances for a crossover. As a result, lead vocalist Dov Rosenblatt is currently embarking on a more secular solo career, with high hopes for reaching a wider audience. But the vast majority of religious artists finance their own recordings and handle their own concert booking and music production - a burden so heavy that almost all must abandon their recording careers in favor of more stable "day jobs" after just one or two self-published albums.
Matisyahu attributes his success to his having found God, and the drive that resulted from having made peace with himself.
"Before I was religious I was like a rat on a wheel trying to make things happen," he says. "I was trying to do anything I could. I was dropping off my demo, I'd get on stage with people whenever I could. When I became religious, I went to yeshiva because that's what God wanted me to do, and then it just happened - the offers to do shows, the offers from the record companies, offers to do interviews."
Matisyahu may have succeeded where these other acts have failed, but the situation is not so simple. Many religious acts are in no way attracted to the mainstream spotlight, preferring to keep the outside world's influences from tainting them. For others, it's a matter of apples and oranges: "Jewish music" audiences are willing to patronize a lot of music that doesn't hold a candle to secular offerings musically as long as they can identify with its message.
Matisyahu, on the other hand, was never trying to appeal to a Jewish audience - a key element in the equation.
"The majority of the audiences we play for are for non-religious, non-Jewish. It's almost all popular music venues," he says. "We made the move into that - it was a conscious decision and a good decision. The way I saw myself - because I wasn't raised religious, I wasn't a Jewish performer - I was just me. When I'm making music, I see myself in the way I thought of myself as a teenager. It was never in my mind to get out of the box, because I never saw that there was a box.
"When we started, it was good to have a Jewish fan base that helped things get going, but it didn't stop there. When we started booking shows, we might've made $1,000 more at a JCC, but we went to the Mercury Lounge and places like that because that's where we wanted to be."
When Matisyahu first told his yeshiva rabbis that he was interrupting his full-time studies to pursue a mainstream music career, they scoffed at his eagerness to enter the mainstream ("I see what I'm doing in a certain way as an advanced version of that Chabad thing; it's just a matter of doing it in a way that's more with it," Matisyahu says.
But once the rabbis had seen his act, no one could tell him not to share it. Industry executives also scoffed at the idea of a Hassidic reggae performer, but they were quickly won over once they'd been treated to footage of Matisyahu performing.
Matisyahu is the real deal; he has the skills to win over even the most skeptical, and he deserves to be the one to bridge the gaps that he hopes to cross. Anyone who disagrees ought to check him out this week.
Matisyahu plays Tel Aviv's Barby on December 6 and 7 and Jerusalem's Ma'abada Theater on December 8 and 10. For more information, call the Ma'abada at (02) 629-2000, or Barby at (03) 518-8123.