Correction to This Article
A Feb. 19 Arts article about the reggae singer Matisyahu incorrectly identified Aaron Dugan as the bass player/keyboardist and co-writer in Matisyahu's band. Josh Werner is the group's bass player and co-writer.
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Funny, He Doesn't Look Jamaican

Matisyahu has fused music and religion in a highly unorthodox -- er, make that orthodox -- way.
Matisyahu has fused music and religion in a highly unorthodox -- er, make that orthodox -- way. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Can't seem to shake it

When one retires at night weeping, joy will come in the morning

You made my mountain stand strong

-- "Warrior"

His was not always the observant life.

Matisyahu grew up in a relatively secular household in White Plains, the oldest child of liberal Jews who embraced the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, a modern movement that emphasizes individual autonomy over traditional Jewish law. His parents are social workers; his dad attended graduate school at Howard University and runs an agency that works with the homeless. His mother is a school social worker. As a kid, he attended Hebrew school three times a week. There, he acted up. A lot.

He felt something was missing. What, he wasn't sure. Even today, Matisyahu can't fully explain his troubled school years; he speaks carefully about that time, skimming over past tensions with his parents.

As a high school junior, on a trip to the Colorado wilderness, out in the woods, he felt a spiritual union that bordered on the mystical. That sense of the mystical was amplified during a trip to Israel. There, he saw religious Jews praying at the Western Wall, davening , rocking back and forth, back and forth.

That image stuck with him. But back in the States, he felt constricted: school, parents, rules . This would prove ironic later.

He found refuge in rap, particularly in Nas and his 1996 album, "It Was Written," which included a riff about a slave rebellion. Matisyahu, too, felt enslaved. By what? He didn't know. Just felt the chains.

The lyrics rocked him. The beat did, too. He took to hanging out in his White Plains High School cafeteria, freestyling and beatboxing with his buddies. Around the same time, he got into reggae and Bob Marley, locking his hair and connecting with the message in the music: Find strength in yourself.

He ran away at 17, chasing music in the tradition of Grateful Dead fans, following the jam band Phish from city to city. His rebellion lasted but a couple of months. At his parents' urging, he enrolled in a wilderness treatment program in Oregon. Drugs (he won't say which) had become a part of his revolt.


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