Monday, November 28, 2005

Matisyahu live

Continuing my Jewish culture blitz, I went tonight to hear Matisyahu in his first ever concert in London, which was kicking off a European tour. It was a full house -- 800 people -- and I have to say, I've never seen anything like it. The sight of this slightly gangly chossid -- whose trainers were the only sign as he came on stage that perhaps he wasn't a totally typical yeshivah bocher -- driving the audience into a frenzy was simply surreal. Where other stars might get the audience going by tearing off their shirt, a very charismatic Matisyahu got his shrieks by taking off his hat (song 2) and then -- gasp! -- his black coat (song 4). At one stage some woman actually shouted that she loved him and someone started throwing their clothes on stage. The men were all in the front rows were all reaching out to touch him. One wonders if even the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself ever inspired quite such mass hysteria...
That said, the most remarkable part of it all was not the star but the audience. I've never seen such a wide variety of people at a Jewish musical event. He got everyone from the slightly rebellious haredim (all heavy smokers...) and the modern orthodox to the totally secular, the Kabbalah Center freaks, the secular Israelis, women with rasta hair and more than a few non-Jews. Which got me thinking: to what do we attribute this Matisyahu phenomenon? He's not the only Jewish musician using non-Jewish music forms to reach out, but he's certainly the most successful and he really does seem to appeal to an extraordinarily wide range of people. Part of it, I started thinking, was to do with the ba'al teshuvah movement, perhaps the nature of Lubavitch is part of the story here, certainly the fact that reggae is much cooler than the faux-pop of other religious performers...
And then it hit me.
Almost everyone I spoke to last night told me what a wonderful blend Matisyahu was of Judaism and secular culture. As I was leaving the venue, going completely against the grain, someone began to complain to me that the performance wasn't Jewish enough. Yes, his lyrics might have been Jewish but they were so unintelligable with the volume, and the way they were sung, that the Jewish side was completely irrelevant. At the same time, one of the non-Jewish guys at the concert -- a tourist from the States who actually owns a Matisyahu CD -- asked a friend of mine what the word 'Hashem' meant.
At the risk of sounding completely heretical, that's part of Matisyahu's secret. Most of his songs are not heavy on Jewish content -- yes, they all have religious messages, but he approaches his subjects lightly. In any case, the way he sings, at least in concert, makes it completely impossible to understand a single word he says if you haven't actually sat down and read his lyrics. Without the words, all you're left with is some pretty good reggae (by others' accounts -- I'm no judge!) and the fascination of it coming from a guy in a black hat and black coat (until song 4...). If you can't hear the words properly, or don't really understand the message, or manage to ignore what are really only occasional explicitely religious lines and words, the 'frum factor' is interesting, unusual, and cool -- a definite attraction -- but you don't feel that it's being rammed down your throat, threatening or 'frummie' in the way you might feel about Mordechai Ben David and the like. You're just left with the music -- and with the exoticism of it all.
OK, ok, that's not the whole story. But it is part of it. I'm convinced that if half the audience tonight, particularly the secular half, could actually hear and understand what he was saying, or if his content was as intensively Jewish as his form, he wouldn't be quite the hit he is today.

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