As charming a name as Feivish Hershel is, good thing the folks who bestowed this bit of Yiddishness on their baby boy forgot all about it. Because, years later, when that same son needed a Hebrew name, something a little less folksy was selected.
What they came up with was Matisyahu, the musical powerhouse who, when first appearing on the scene in 2004, was a most unusual sight. An Orthodox Jew with beard, black hat, and tzit tzit (fringes from the prayer garments) who sings reggae songs about his faith, Matisyahu comes across like Bob Marley meets Moses, with some rock instrumentation, rap lyrics, beat-boxing, and jazz tossed in. Matisyahu and his band, the Dub Trio, will be performing on Thursday, August 4 at the Majestic Ventura Theater.
The name Matisyahu comes from the Biblical name Matiyahu, the 2nd century BC Jewish leader of the Maccabees revolt. It is the Ashkenazic version of his English name, Matthew, and is fitting for a singer whose passionate songs call for peace, hope, and faith and draw heavily from the Bible and Jewish history.
While speaking with Matisyahu from his tour bus in Baltimore, I learned that music has always been a part of his nature, and that he sees it as a vehicle for spiritual elevation. “Music was always a natural thing for me,” he said. “When I write lyrics, it comes from a certain spiritual place, originating in some aspect of Judaism. My identity is wrapped up in that, and when I’m out on stage, it can be an emotional and spiritual experience.”
While always ethnically Jewish, Matisyahu was a late-bloomer in terms of his faith. Raised in White Plains, New York, his was a predominantly secular childhood with no strong connection to the sacred aspects of his Jewish heritage, or a belief in God.
The Rocky Mountains changed this. While on a trip to Colorado as a teen, seeing this range is what first inspired him to believe. As Matisyahu told the Jewish Ledger in 2006, the spiritual spark grew from there and “eventually I started to pray and take classes. Something was pushing me toward this part of my Jewish background.”
Also during this time, he encountered the music of Bob Marley, taking note of its heavy spiritual element; religion and reggae, rolled into one. “Reggae really lends itself to spirituality,” Matisyahu said. “It’s rhythmic, trance-like, simple and has lots of space. It takes you to a zone and shows you something more, something divine.”
He found an answer to his increasingly strong religious calling in the Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch movement, popped on a yarmulke, and went to study at their yeshiva (a school for Jewish learning). It was there that Matisyahu first combined Torah wisdom with tunes, and released his first album, Shake off the Dust … Arise!
Recalling how the yeshiva students took to the streets each Friday, looking for Jews to reintroduce to the rituals and traditions of the faith, he said, “When I went to record my first record, it was on a Friday, the only day you could leave the yeshiva. We would usually go out those days and put tefillin on people, and give out Shabbat candles. I had a route, would go to different stores and such. When I started with the music, since Friday was the only day I could go out and do it, I started going to the studio instead of the streets. The rabbis didn’t get it. So, I said, ‘If my dream comes true, and I’m sure that it will, I’m going to be able to reach a lot more people that way.’”
Though he ultimately transitioned out of the Chabad Lubavitcher world, Matisyahu is still an observant Hasidic Jew. Songs such as “Jerusalem,” “Exaltation,” and his Top 40-hit, “King Without a Crown,” all reference the scriptures (particularly the Psalms), and in his personal life, he abstains from smoking, drinking, and drugs, and will not perform on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath).
After his first album, Matisyahu went on to release several more live and studio albums, Live At Stubbs, Vol. 2, being the most recent. “The music was always a mixture, from my very first record,” he said. “When I first started out, there really wasn’t much of this going on; Jewish themes with modern-day music. But, there was a niche for it.”
The platinum-selling Semite’s most recent studio LP, Light, moved away from his musical origins and toward a newer, more acoustic, folksy-soul direction. It also reflects growth in his vocal chops. “Light was the biggest departure for me,” he explained. “I was encouraged to sing without the reggae accent. I’d been working on my voice and felt more comfortable. I was not a trained singer. When a teen, I really never saw the point, but, once my career started I began learning techniques and became obsessed with it. One teacher showed me how I wasn’t reaching my potential. I saw what I was capable of.”
Though the 32-year-old Matisyahu has performed all over the world, he added, “I haven’t yet played in China, India, or Africa, but, I would love to get everywhere at some point!”
Matisyahu headlines an all-ages show at the Majestic Ventura Theater (26 S. Chestnut St.) on Thursday, August 4 at 7 p.m. Tea Leaf Green and John West open. For tickets and show info, call 653-0721 or visit venturatheater.net.