Jewish voices, Jamaican sound

“Fire descends from on high in the shape of a lion/Burn the sacrifice of pride and ride on to Mount Zion.”; Spacy dub piano chords, dry and heavy beats, “reflection”; rhymed with “imperfection”; and “correction”: the roots reggae territory is instantly recognisable. Except that Matisyahu is not from Kingston: he is Matthew Miller, Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, who performs in full Hasidic clothing, with beard and tzitzit. Matisyahu’s new album, Youth, is chock full of apocalypse. The lyrics tumble out, dancehall-style: the buildings of Babylon rise like flames; the youth “get vexed, skip class and get wrecked/fill with beer and cigarettes to fill the hole in their chest.” In a tip of the hat to another reggae-struck white man, he finds himself “sending out an SOS”.

Reggae at its most righteous has always been an assertion of cultural nationalism. But there is still a shock in hearing Jerusalem appear in song not as a metaphor but as a real city whose final status is vigorously disputed. “Three thousand years with no place to be/and they want me to give up my milk and honey.”

Considering how deeply Rastafarian imagery is rooted in the Old Testament, the surprise should perhaps be that there are not more Jewish reggae albums. But they do exist. Roots and Culture by King Django (Jeff Baker) was a ska version of Radical Jewish Culture, saxophones bleating like shofars. “Nakht Shifl Ken Kayro” turns out to be a kicking Yiddish-language version of Madness’s “Night Boat To Cairo”, sinuous with trombone and a violin solo from the klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals. “Slaughter”; is a chilling version of the Holocaust, its seductive rhythms starkly at odds with the defiant lyrics. A call to “rise up and fight the oppressor” and a reminder that “we must never forget” feel right at home in this Caribbean musical world.

In Israel, music draws on a crossroads’ worth of sources, from the Pale of Settlement to the Middle East: the new Rough Guide to the Music of Israel gives a good idea of its richness and diversity. One hip-hop crew, Hadag Nah-ash, is represented. Two of their best-known songs take a wry look at local politics. “Shirat Hasticker”; juxtaposes the text of a range of bumper stickers (collated by the novelist David Grossman), ranging from revanchist settler to peacenik to ribald. “Misparim” tells a story in numbers: “One is the number of states between Jordan and the sea/Two is the number of states there will be . . . ” and all the way up to “nine times I’ve been too close to a pigua [suicide bombing] – so far”.

Not appearing on the Rough Guide album is Hadag Nahash’s rival, Subliminal. He is more uncompromisingly Zionist, describing the nation as “flickering like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth.”

The mirror image of this phenomenon is gentile klezmer, a close cousin of the hoary 1960s debate about whether white men could play the blues (or indeed, as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band had it, can blue men play the whites?). Kroke, a much-lauded klezmer band from Poland, are not Jewish (and their collaboration with Nigel Kennedy added an extra dash of the ersatz), but they wear homburg hats and heavy coats in a disturb-
ing variation on blackface
minstrelsy.

Other unlikely characters besides Matisyahu are discovering their inner Jamaican. Sinead O’Connor’s most recent album, Throw Down Your Arms, saw the shaven-headed Irish singer covering a series of roots reggae classics from the 1970s. Many of these were by Burning Spear, and O’Connor’s versions merely matched the conviction of the originals. But in the case of “Vampire”, originally sung nonchalantly by Devon Irons for Lee “Scratch” Perry, she finessed the same trick that the Clash pulled off with “Armagideon Time”, toughening up a swinging original and playing it with a passionate sincerity that made any questions of appropriation utterly moot. Reggae is the language of all who feel themselves beleaguered. In the modern world, who does not?

‘Youth’ is on Sony/BMG. ‘The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel’ is released by World Music Network.

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