Matisyahu at Revival (783 College), Saturday (January 22). $13.50. 416-535-7888. Rating: NNNNN
If you know Crown Heights, Brooklyn , you know it's an unlikely place to find reggae's next superstar.
Nothing in the streets suggests the slightest tendency toward the familiar icons of Rastafarianism, ganja culture or even a tolerance for red, green and gold in the same colour scheme. Fedoras, black wool coats, wigs and boxy dress suits are more like it. And though beards are prevalent, men's hair is uniformly coiffed in pairs of curlicued peyes, not dreads.
Crown Heights is Hasidic territory, the heart of New York's super-orthodox Jewry. But despite its improbability, reggae's most impressive new star comes straight out of Lubavitch.
Matisyahu (né Matthew Miller) is baal tshuva (a newly religious Jew). He grew up in a Reform Jewish household in White Plains and as a teenager was more dedicated to the dope-fuelled pop of Phish than to the path of God.
Somewhere along the way, Miller found faith in the strictures of Lubavitch Hasidism, and Matisyahu was born.
"Hashem, God, doesn't send you in the most obvious directions," Matisyahu says over the phone from Crown Heights. "Before I became religious, my music had no core. It wasn't ready yet. I wasn't ready yet. Until I was ready to find myself in something other than music, I wasn't able to see the music that was in me."
Whether it's Hashem or just hard work, people are taking notice. Matisyahu has been interviewed on CNN and appeared recently on Jimmy Kimmel's and Carson Daly's talk shows. The upstart's boisterous beat-boxing Eek-a-Mouse Yiddishkeit reggae is big news.
But press fascination with Matisyahu is focused on the novelty (a Hasidic Jewish reggae star!), forgetting that religiosity has always been part of reggae's vocabulary. And Rastafarianism, in its syncretic fervour, has always dipped liberally into the Judaic storybook for imagery. So while Matisyahu's decision to become a pop star may be odd, his choice of direction isn't surprising. It's startlingly obvious.
"That sense of surprise comes from people who don't know anything about reggae," he observes. "Anyone who knows the scene isn't going to find it unusual for long. The reggae community, as far as I know, hasn't been too widely exposed to my music. But the responses so far have been very positive.
"I played this reggae show in Amherst, Massachusetts," he says. "There was this big group of Rastas from Jamaica in the back. Afterwards, one of the Rastafarian ladies confronted me and said, 'You no Rasta.' I didn't know what to say, but the head Rasta dude, the main teacher, stepped up to her and said, 'The question is not whether he's Rasta, but whether this brother knows David. And this brother knows David!'"
Matisyahu pauses, then asks if I'll hold for a second while he says a brucha with his family. When he comes back on the line a few minutes later, I ask how he manages to balance a spiritual life and the aggressive pace of a career in pop.
"It's both simple and hard," he says with a laugh. "Music is not a path or a lifestyle that will bring a person to permanently change himself. It's a tool - a tool for the way. You get a certain charge at a show, but the real spiritual charge comes from learning about God, learning Hasidism, and really meditating. Going out into the world gives you a way to put your knowledge and concepts into real life, which strengthens them. The rules that guide you, you see them in a real way.
"That's the world we live in," he adds. "The physical matter of the universe covers the spiritual, and it's our job to reveal the spark again. The whole purpose according to Yiddishkeit, is for the Jews to go out into the world and elevate the sparks of God in everything, to find the higher meaning in them, like the candle that is so much brighter in a dark room than the candle that burns in sunlight."