Sounds of silence

Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu doesn't play

Hailing from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Matisyahu is a Hasidic reggae artist who rocks a mic like he rocks a yarmulke (Jewish skullcap): tight and straight from the dome. Shouting out Zion and chanting down Babylon, Matisyahu may not endorse ganja, but he aims to take you higher with rebel music that draws upon both Rasta patois and Jewish cantors, Sizzla to Shlomo Carlebach. The style may sound new, almost kitsch, but Matisyahu toasts some traditions that have been around as long as the Old Testament. Call it spiritually sound. Yet a silence of sorts centers the music of Matisyahu.

That may seem a strange claim, seeing as Matisyahu — born Matthew Miller in West Chester, Penn., in 1979 — disseminates his message of hopeful humility through roots reggae, whose backbone of backbeat would seem almost too wiggly for outright worship. But Matisyahu finds reggae and dub to be as instrumental as forms of music can be when it comes to piggybacking universal positivity. And a reverence fits the softly spoken but firm of convictions of Matisyahu and his cross-culturally resonant trio of musicians (drummer Jonah David, guitarist Aaron Dugan and bassist Josh Werner).

"In general, reggae is all about the place where you don't play," says Matisyahu by cell phone from the road. "Really good music isn't about how many notes you put in, but it's about emptying out the space, so when you do add a note, it accentuates that beat, shows how precious each note is. Dub, especially, laps at the gaps, but there are tons of gaps. While in other music those gaps are already filled and you wait for when they do a breakdown, dub is just a large breakdown."

It isn't merely reverberation chambers of bass, guitar and drums, but also the music's inherent echoing of cultural and sociopolitical connectivity — parts Capleton and Luciano patois and King Tubby production — that helped draw young Miller from his suburban origins.

"This space in music corresponds also to life, as everything does," says Matisyahu. "Music, art and science is a reflection of the psychological, physical, spiritual. 'Less is more' I learned from Judaism, especially, and also through the music that if you create a void and space in yourself [that] you don't try to fill, you can tap into a certain truth and space you otherwise couldn't get."

Miller himself needed plenty of space before he came to this juncture. From age 14 to 21 he moved around in search of an open mic and an open philosophy, and transitioned from a "teenage hippie" to balancing rhymes, beatbox and spiritual dialogue from the stage to the yeshiva (religious school).

"I went away from my home, out into the wilderness," says Matisyahu, referencing his formative years exploring spirituality (and at one point following Phish) from White Plains, N.Y., to Colorado then Israel and Oregon and finally New York City. "When the Jews went from Egypt into a wilderness, it's the same concept — you get rid of all of the stuff, create a space. You're not in your home, inundated with lights and TV and radio, and it creates a mysterious place where you start to wonder what's going on. I feel it's easier to feel spiritual in nature, for sure. So it was both timing and place."

Now Matisyahu makes his home in New York, as seemingly far removed from the wilderness as humanly possible. But much like he personalizes reggae's explorative origins, Matisyahu finds a way to reconcile his bustling surroundings and travels in the philosophy of Chabad-Lubavitch, which champions Jewish continuity.

"The time we live in is what we call 'Exile,'" says Matisyahu, who addresses the search for self and the fire within during rubbery songs such as "Chop 'Em Down" and "Aish Tamid." "We compare the Jewish people as children wandering away ... from Jerusalem and the temple and when things were obvious. The idea is that there's some reason we live in places like New York. We believe every person is like a good piece of land, and like land can be spacious or cluttered, so can the person. Then they take that piece of positivity and create it in itself. So once enough people do this, the entire world becomes a broad and spacious land full of milk and honey. Each person can tap into those resources, so even in New York a person can work harder against obstacles and make that space within themselves."

As a result of his background, no conversation with Matisyahu is about music or life alone. Some of his beliefs are found on records including his currently available Live at Stubb's (JDub/Or Music), while his upcoming Bill Laswell-produced studio album — which shies away from any finger-pointing or "anger outletting" and will bridge dancehall, reggae and hip-hop with "a Hasidic singer/songwriter feel" — will be distributed through Epic Records in January 2006. But at shows — conspicuous in his plain black suit and wiry beard even before he takes the stage — Matisyahu almost as often finds himself explaining his beliefs and answering questions about Judaism as he does signing CDs and discussing music. And all that conversation happens before he goes to pray the evening service and reread the Talmud.

Don't confuse Matisyahu's devout studies with a desire to shy from modern means of connectivity, however. For Matisyahu, the Internet is just another space waiting to be tapped for truth.

"I think the whole point of technology is for it to be used in a positive way, to spread a good message, not just garbage, and hopefully I'm playing a part in that," says Matisyahu, who acknowledges a spike in popularity following an almost viral e-mail forwarding of his appearance on the "Carson Daly" show. "That's the whole concept of Hasidis — taking the things in the physical world and elevating them to a spiritual purpose and returning them to their source, so it goes with everything I'm trying to do."