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August 29, 2006 | Author: Greg Phillips


In the often fickle and superficial world of rock n roll, US reggae/hip hop/beatbox artist Matisyahu is unique. It’s his freshness in a copycat world that resulted in his first album “Live at Stubbs’ selling more than 500,000 copies in the US and claiming the number one position on the reggae charts for six weeks in a row. Armed with a new studio album, “Youth” and a message of peace, Matisyahu recently made his first tour to Australia. Greg Phillips caught up with him the day after he blitzed a Melbourne crowd.

The twenty seven year old Pennsylvanian-born Matisyahu Mitchell is a strict follower of the Hasidic Jewish faith and as a result, is required to follow many guidelines foreign to the contemporary music environment. For any cynic who may deem the traditional Jewish skull cap and prayer scarf he adorns on stage as a publicity angle, having spent just a little time with him, I can vouch for his authenticity. For instance, the female record company promotional staff are forbidden to touch him, only females he is related to may do so. The music video channel people who had taped an interview prior to mine, was asked not to show the footage on a Saturday, the holy sabbath. Certain times are placed into his schedule for prayer and it takes no time at all while speaking with him to discern that his faith is his life, and his purpose is his faith. However, the serenity of Matisyahu’s daily life is in stark contrast to his nocturnal habitat. At Melbourne’s Prince of Wales pub, where Matisyahu played to a packed and very vocal house the previous evening, his passion for his faith manifested powerfully in his music and the crowd responded accordingly. The audience, who had no such lifestyle restrictions were swept away by the ambient grooves and extended exultant jams generated by the beatboxer and his amazingly talented band.

The following afternoon, he was completing a run of press commitments, dressed casually in track pants and entered the hotel suite set aside for interviews with an endearing  innocence. On stage, there’s a lot going on in Matisyahu’s music with elements of improvisation and inclusion of dub and beatboxing phrases. I was interested to know how  a virtual non-instrumentalist conveys his musical ideas to the band.

“Sometimes the band create the melodies themselves.” the softly spoken Matisyahu said. “Actually Aaron, the guitarist on the new album did a couple himself. Then whenever I get a melody line, a lot of the time I will sing it to them, and then we’ll work out the chords and Jonah will do his percussion bit. Sometimes I’ll tinker it out on the piano a little bit.”

The genre of music Matisyahu uses to power his musical message  is old school reggae, admiring its properties of faith and devotion. It’s a style that has been severely bastardised by many bands, UB40 being king culprits, but the brand of reggae this band plays is authentic, with its roots firmly entrenched in Kingston beats. “Reggae is much more than just party music or sitting on your porch drinking and listening to ‘One Love’. At the core essence of it, music is a prayer” said Matisyahu on the subject.

As Matisyahu performed on stage rapping and rhyming, his thoughts turned to those on the other side of the world in less ecstatic surrounds. His message was not pro-Israel, nor anti-Hezbollah but anti-war. For someone who so openly displays his religious heart on his sleeve, I put it to him that his message, more then any other international artist may carry more weight at this moment in time. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of weeks” he said rocking back and forth in his chair, carefully considering the question. “Particularly being in Australia, which is such a beautiful country and I’m able to walk freely on the beautiful beaches while my brothers and sisters are living in bomb shelters and children are being killed… thinking about why I am here and what my purpose is.”

Matisyahu and band promise to be back in Australia spreading their message  in January 2007.

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