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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chasidic beatboxing keeps Matisyahu moving

Matisyahu is in a delicate place right now.

hasidic beatboxing phenomenon matisyahuNot emotionally (although in conversation he is raw and perceptive -- he always seems to know what you're thinking, and he's two steps ahead of the question you're about to ask) and not physically (on the night we speak, he's in Norfolk, Va., where soon he will play to a packed crowd of 1,500 in a refurbished 1920s theater). On Nov. 18 he'll be at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles.

Careerwise, however, he's straddling a chasm.

On one side is the possibility of being a one-hit wonder -- his debut single, "King Without a Crown," appeared on all three of his albums to date, and after a strong first few weeks on the Billboard charts, his most recent record, the major-label debut "Youth," fell quickly from sight.

On the other, Matisyahu holds a lucrative contract with Gary Gersh, who manages Beck and the Beastie Boys. His tour is progressing swiftly, new buzz for his upcoming CD is positive and strong, and his upcoming eight-night run in New York concerts over Chanukah is as eagerly anticipated as anything he's done.

But the most persuasive evidence for the longevity of the iconoclastic Chasidic Jew can be found in his new album, "Light," scheduled for release in February. It's a departure from straightforward reggae as well as an experiment in storytelling and pop music. It's also a more intricate statement about God than even his fans are accustomed to hearing.

Last month, the label released a four-song E.P., "Shattered," which finds Matisyahu backed by straightforward hip-hop beats, Postal Service-like indie-tronica and even spoken word (but the good kind of spoken word).

"Smash Lies," the first song on "Shattered," combines an oud, orchestral samples, a Timbaland hip-hop beat and the artist himself ducking in and out of harmonies, preaching and vocal percussion -- and, by that last part, I mean beatboxing, but also a new technique in this song that jumps from beatboxing into rapid spitfire vocals and back again. "Two Child One Drop" takes cues from dance hall queen M.I.A., with a wild, uneasy tape loop floating through the groove.

And "I Will Be Light" is a sad and playful acoustic song, driven by a chorus of oy yoi yoi's, but sounds more like an amiable barroom singalong than a perfectly harmonized chorus ... in other words, a new Matisyahu.

Reinvention is kind of becoming the theme of his life. Partially, the responsibility for this new sound falls upon his new songwriting partners, including an oud player, a hip-hop beatmaker and a teenage reggae prodigy.

Partly, however, it's Matisyahu who signaled this new direction.

"When I started out, I sang in a Jamaican accent," he says as matter-of-factly as if remarking that he sings at all. "But most of what I'm listening to these days isn't reggae. I've also been taking lessons, developing my voice."

What is he listening to these days? Mostly, Ephraim Rosenstein.

Rosenstein, whom he refers to as his "teacher/mentor/friend," is a Jerusalem-based therapist and educator. Together, they studied the Tanya -- the fundamental book of Lubavitch Chasidim, through which Matisyahu started becoming religious -- and studied its ideology together with the ideology of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, another Chasidic teacher, as well as other philosophers.

"We would take themes like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, repentance, and then break down those themes as ideas, as single words," Matisyahu said. "And then we'd bring in stories."

Some of the stories were biblical. Others, like the proliferation of child slavery and the genocide in Darfur, were more current.

Gradually, the stories built into a cohesive narrative. Matisyahu tells the story like a novel, or maybe like a folktale: Two children in Africa, coerced into serving as soldiers, sneak away from their army and escape across the desert. For much of the story, they're lost in the desert -- just like the narrator of "The Tale of Seven Beggars," a Chasidic story originally told by Rebbe Nachman.

"Each idea became a chapter, and from those we would write songs," Matisyahu tells it. In his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, his longtime guitarist Aaron Dugan would start playing and Matisyahu would jump in, beatboxing -- "We'd run for an hour without stopping," he said.

Often, when they would play back the music, he said, they'd both be struck by the darkness. From there, the duo brought in other collaborators. Matisyahu flew to Jamaica to record with Sly and Robbie, generally known as the top-shelf reggae rhythm section, as well as Stephen McGregor, a reggae producer who's still in his teens.

"People are like, 'He's lost his reggae thing; he's not reggae anymore' -- it's ironic, it's this 17-year-old kid who's producing Sean Paul and the Fugees."

His list of collaborators on "Light" also includes Ooah, a hip-hop producer and member of the Glitch Mob, as well as the oud player from Idan Raichel's band. Yehuda Solomon, lead singer of Los Angeles-based Moshav, was also brought in to add world-music-sounding Hebrew vocals over Matisyahu's English vocals.

If the songs on "Shattered" veer in directions that are surprising to the artist's existing fans, "Light" abandons the path entirely. The first track, "Master of the Field," was released as a free download on Matisyahu's Web site. It treads on ground both familiar and new, with classic Chasidic (and, yes, Lubavitch) metaphors -- the titular master is a reference to the Jewish month of Elul, when the king comes out to greet his subjects on their territory. Musically, it borrows from the confines of his previous work (reggae-tinted keyboards, infectious pop hooks, a beatboxed transitional bridge) but a little before the two-minute mark, the song explodes into a totally different vein. It's not pop music, it's not experimental, but it manages to retain its catchiness while paring down to little more than a drum-and-bass beatbox and a chanted chorus.

Matisyahu doesn't expect everyone to grasp the multilayered story on his album, or even to understand his new direction completely. "In the end, when someone listens to the record, they won't hear that story," he said. "When my sister-in-law first heard 'Two Child,' which is a song about a boy dying in the desert telling a girl to carry on, she was like, 'What girl is this about? It's not about my sister ...'" He laughs. Then, with a measure of sobriety, he adds: "Other people say, 'He isn't writing Jewish songs anymore.' They don't realize it's about the world. It's about everything."

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