Tuesday, March 14, 2006

G-d's Reggae Star

Slate's Jody Rosen has been listening to Matisyahu, the newly minted top-40 rocker, and he is less than impressed. The review appears here. Along with the general dissing Jody has some smart things to say. A sampling:

About Matisyahu's voice
As for Matisyahu's vocals: They're adequate. He's got rhythm... and if he sometimes sings off-key, so do most dance-hall artists. But there's no getting around the phony Jamaican accent; when, in "Jerusalem," he sings "In-a de ancient days, we will return with no delay/ Picking up de bounty and de spoils on our way," he sounds no less silly than Vanilla Ice did impersonating a gangsta.

About his act
Matisyahu isn't really a novelty—his is the oldest act in the show-business book. Minstrelsy dates back to the very beginnings of American popular music, and Jews have been particularly zealous and successful practitioners of the art. From Irving Berlin's blackface ragtime numbers to Al Jolson's mammy songs—from jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, who passed as black, to Bob Dylan, who channeled the cadences of black bluesmen, to the Beastie Boys—successive generations of Jewish musicians have used the blackface mask to negotiate Jewish identity and have made some great art in the process.

On Jewish Reggae
Musically speaking, Jewish reggae is not such a far-fetched idea; as many critics have pointed out, the plaintive minor-key melodies for which Jewish liturgical music (and Hasidic folksongs) are renowned are also staples of reggae. What's more, Matisyahu's appropriation of Jamaican music is really no more brazen than Rastafarians' appropriation of Jewish religious tropes. If a Caribbean islander can plunder Jewish scripture and call himself a lost tribesman of Israel, why can't a Jew sing a song to a one-drop beat in a phony patois? Lubavitcher Hasidim even have their very own Hallie Selassie-like demigod, the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who many Lubavitchers regard as Moshiach himself.

About his bonafides:
Matisyahu is like a thousand other white guys from the suburbs who've smoked a lot of dope, listened to some Burning Spear records, and decided to become reggae singers. But as a Hasid, he has a genuinely exotic look—that great big beard and the tzitzit fringes flying—and the spiritual bona fides to pull off songs steeped in Old Testament imagery. It's an ingenious variation on the archetypal Jewish blackface routine... In 2006, Matisyahu wears Old World "Jewface," and in so doing, becomes "black."