Some people say listening to music can be a sort of religious experience.

Then there’s Matisyahu – an Orthodox Jewish reggae and hip-hop musician – who gives the phrase a whole new meaning. The unconventional star, who has managed to cross over the pop, rock, hip hop, reggae and religious charts, is bringing his Festival of Light Tour to Portland the day after Christmas.

Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller) embraces the prayers and customs of traditional Judaism – he doesn’t work on the Sabbath, and he keeps kosher at mealtime. He can’t do sound checks for Saturday-night concerts until after sundown.

But he says his spiritual growth and development within his faith has been fostered a lot by music as well.

And not exactly the kind of music you might expect.

“Bob Marley and reggae music opened me up to the Old Testament. I had experiences at Phish shows that completely rocked my world and opened me up to new dimensions, music, God and oneness, all of it,” Matisyahu said in an email interview.

“I also had experiences away from music that were important to my emotional and spiritual development: In the wilderness, the silence, the bare naked reality not masked by music; in Yeshiva (a high-level Torah study program) away from music for several years, letting go of my dreams to be a star, to be famous. It wasn’t until I separated the music from my ego or my desires as to how the music would serve me that I became able to make music.”

But in his earlier days, it seems that Matisyahu went to concerts to, like most people, party and have a good time. When asked who some of his favorite performers to see live were, he wrote: “I can’t remember the last time I saw music sober live and enjoyed it.”

Miller grew up in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., in a Reconstructionist Jewish family. As a teenager, he began studying and exploring Judaism more deeply, including at a school in Manhattan and a wilderness program in Oregon.

At 19, he renamed himself Matisyahu and became affiliated with a Chassidic movement within Judaism. When performing, he was often seen with a beard and wearing the black fedora and long black coat typical of members of the Chabad sect.

But just last week, Matisyahu’s religious affiliations made news when he shaved off his signature beard and wrote online: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.” Some took the remarks to mean he was pulling back on his faith, but he later said on Twitter that he would continue practicing his faith in the same ways, and that his facial hair may make a comeback someday.

And for those worried about how his image change will affect his concert at the State Theatre, don’t – according to recent reviews, his musical style and live show remain unchanged.

Musically, Matisyahu is known for spiritual lyrics, energetic rapping and beat-boxing, often to a reggae rhythm. His career began when he was in Bend, Ore., for wilderness school and began performing as MC Truth.

In 2005, Phish invited him to perform with them at the Bonnaroo Festival. After that, he toured extensively for a couple of years before releasing the single, “King Without a Crown,” which became a hit on rock radio and made the top 10 Modern Rock chart. He’s since charted three albums on the Billboard Top 40 mainstream album chart.

Because he honors the traditional Jewish Sabbath, from Friday evening to Saturday evening, he doesn’t do Friday-night concerts. And he has said in the past that doing Saturday shows is tricky, because he’s not supposed to work until after sundown and can’t ask anyone to work for him until then, either. Keeping kosher is not that hard, he says, but as a vegan, eating healthy on the road is his bigger challenge.

In between writing, recording and touring, Matisyahu writes long meditative pieces about religion and spirituality on his website.

When asked what he likes to do besides music, he gave this answer:

“I spend my days (in) voice therapy, physical therapy, psychotherapy, shul and vegan restaurants, reading, resting, walking, breathing, thinking, praying, writing, trying not to think, trying not to talk or put garbage inside me.

“The good stuff is already there.”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

 

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