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Headed to Israel for four gigs in early December, breakout reggae-hiphop phenomenon Matisyahu is an anomaly among observant Jewish musicians. Two years ago, Matisyahu Miller was an unknown ba'al teshuva (newly religious person) living in New York and throwing around ideas with Aaron Bisman, cohead of the culture-jamming non-profit music advancement outfit JDub Records.
Now his name is ubiquitous in the Jewish world. He's been named one of the five most influential Jewish in America according the Forward magazine - and mainstream music fans are taking notice too. Following his appearance on the nationally televised variety show, Jimmy Kimmel Live - where he performed and even gave an interview (in which he declined joking bribes to play music on Shabbat) - his popularity soared.
Since releasing his 2004 JDub debut album Shake Off the Dust... Arise, Matisyahu has taken the North American rock circuit by storm, despite his haredi appearance and religious lyrics. Between classes at a Crown Heights Lubavich yeshiva, Matisyahu plays all over the continent. He appeared at Tennessee's Bonnaroo hippie mega-festival, which boasted an audience of 80,000 as well as other rock legends. This summer he played the "Reggae on the Rocks" festival at Red Rocks, Colorado and the "Reggae Carifest" in New York City. He also opened for Phish guitarist Trey Anistasio's solo project at its Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis and St. Louis dates.
For Matisyahu, who as a teenager was known to travel around the United States following Phish, playing with its guitarist Anistasio was a benchmark. Speaking in a low voice to conserve energy for his upcoming tour, and often referring to himself with the royal "we," Matisyahu explains how his collaboration with Trey Anastasio came to be: "We played at Bonnarroo on Sunday, so I spent shabbes at the Chabad House in Nashville. We were trying to get onstage with one of the main acts. Motzei shabbes (Saturday night), I got a call from Aaron [Bisman], and he said, 'You've got to get back to Bonnaroo, because we got you a meeting with Trey.'
"I met him about 15 minutes before he went onstage. I asked him if I could stand in, and he said, 'I think it's a bad idea' - he already had Bo Bice [American Idol runner-up] going on with him. Then, after I left, he popped his head out of the trailer and said, 'Do you know any Bob Marley?' So we ended up doing 'No Woman No Cry.' The three of us (Bo Bice, Trey and myself) were on stage. One of the reasons I was doing it was to bring people to God, and the reason American Idol exists is to make people into idols, and Trey was in the middle, so it was an interesting moment."
Of course, the experience was a big deal for Matisyahu, but he puts it in perspective: "I realized he's just a regular guy. [Trey is] just a guitar player who's very talented."
Now 25 years old, Matisyahu has certainly come a long way. Following the success of Shake Off the Dust... Arise, with sales exceeding 20,000, his management at JDub forged a partnership with Or Music, an alternative label owned by Epic Records (which is in turn owned by Sony). The JDub-Or venture immediately took on practical manifestations with the April release of Live at
Stubb's - a recording of a February appearance in Texas. Matisyahu and his band are currently recording a follow-up album slated for a late January release. Locally, JDub has recently partnered with the mainstream NMC label for Stubb's's Israeli distribution.
Now the major labels are sending Matisyahu on an international tour, his first ever - not counting last summer's impromptu Israel shows and a Paris appearance that was set up by JDub's French counterpart JuMu last November. This week, he'll be playing mid-sized clubs in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris before arriving in Israel for shows at Tel Aviv's Barby on December 6 and 7 and Jerusalem's Ma'abada theater on December 8 and 10.
This time, Matisyahu will be bringing his manager, his own band, his wife and his newborn son. "Were not a band of sex, drugs and rock and roll," says Bisman. "It's a Jewish band -it's a family-friendly environment. His wife travels with him. This is all he wants to do - he wants to be playing shows, and she would never want to take that away from him. His baby rarely cries, partly because he has four of his uncles [referring to the three band members and Bisman himself] on the tour bus with him."
Matisyahu's journey toward Lubavich-style observance began with a teenage visit to Israel, so coming to perform here is a special homecoming. "Up up and away we go / Yerushalayim is my home / Lord raise me up from the ground / I've been here too long," he pleads on the transcendent chorus of "Lord Raise Me Up" - one of the highlight tracks on Live at Stubb's.
Bisman says: "He's wanted to get to Israel for a long time, and we made that a goal. We blocked out this time a year ago." Of course, this goal was more personal than businessdriven, he admits. "Now that NMC is handling the release of Live at Stubb's, we have someone to work with us to get the word out. It's not an easy market to cover your costs. It's not like we're there to sell records; it's not going to be London, and its not going to be America, but we do think there will be a lot of interest and maybe we can lay the groundwork to come back."
With NMC promoting the tour, it will be interesting to see what type of crowd attends Matisyahu's shows, especially in Tel Aviv, where the bohemian, popular music crowd has a reputation for looking down at all things religious.
"I'm really curious to find out," says the singer. "I'm sure that a lot of the people at shows will be American yeshiva kids in Israel for the year, but I hope a big secular crowd does show up. I think people will respond like they do in America. I think the music will speak for itself. Once they get in a room and the music starts to flow, they'll just let go of whatever they thought of Hassidim or religious people. Hopefully the word will spread."