Finally getting around to writing about some music I’ve been listening to for the last few months, here’s some brief reviews of three albums that have made the rotation on my iPhone.
Has Matisyahu become “spiritual but not religious?”
Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae star, has evolved both in sound and spirituality. Just the picture should tell you a lot—no more beard or Pe’ot (hair curls). There are some touching interviews online that explain his transition, when he realized that God loved him whether he wore the outward signs of his religion or not. He’s moved from Crown Heights in Brooklyn to the decidedly more sunny Jewish community in L.A.
His first post-conversion album is called Spark Seeker, and the name says it all. Just as Matisyahu’s theology has become less strict, so has his musical style. No longer laying down roots reggae with his band as he does in his magnificent Live at Stubbs albums, Matisyahu has mixed electronic beats with traditional Middle Eastern music to form a considerably poppier sound. Lyrics match the change, echoing a vague sounding spirituality, as in the song “Sunshine:”
Reach up for the sky/ Keep your eye on the prize,
Forever in my mind/ you’re my golden sunshine.
The song “Tel Aviv’n” celebrates the “life’s a beach” (albeit in the midst of near-permanent war) mentality of “The Bubble” of Israel’s cultural capital, with a dubstep dance beat.
There could be no bigger difference between the old Chasidic Matisyahu and the new Reform Matisyahu than “Live Like a Warrior,” which cheerily admonishes listeners:
Today, today, live like you wanna,
Let yesterday burn and throw it in a fire,
Live like a warrior.
Compare this to his song “Warrior,” which at least in the live version on Stubbs has a lesson on Jewish metaphysics, including the soul’s reincarnation and desperate desire to reunite with God.
When I lived in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, it was fascinating to experience Jewish holidays like Sukkot, Simchat Torah, and Hanukkah vicariously through my Orthodox and Chasidic neighbors. But like the Amish, it’s easy to idealize 19th-Century clothing and insistence on old-world practices like walking to synagogue as revealing a refreshing spiritual innocence.
I was shaken from any idealization of mid-Brooklyn ritual when I told a lesbian Rabbi friend where I was living and she winced as though I had told her I was in Alabama. It’s easy to forget that Chasidim and Orthodox Judaism are fundamentalist beliefs, and like all such practices, exact a devastating toll on those who stray from their narrow course.
So kudos to Matisyahu, a secular Jew who had an intense conversion to a fundamentalist faith, and then through his spiritual journey came to a place where he saw God’s love as more inclusive.
But I just can’t help but think the more dogmatic lyrics and beats of Live at Stubbs 1 & 2 will be his musical legacy, not Spark Seeker’s interfaith pop. What Matisyahu had before was an orthodox sense of belief that he shared through an unorthodox musical form, and the mixture expressed an intense passion. His music now expresses a nonspecific sense of the divine—a “spark”—that may leave him more spiritually at peace but misses the religious ecstasy of his previous work.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
Just got this album so I haven’t had much time to listen to it, but first impressions are positive. First of all, their hit song “Thrift Shop” which has soared beyond 200 million views on YoutTube has an incredible anti-aesthetic. Imagine a rap song that celebrates putting together your look not with Dolce and bling, but with second-hand clothes. Genius. And an amazing message to “the kids” who listen to this stuff to let go of aspirational greed in favor of inspirational creativity.
Second, I know I’m not exactly ahead of the curve on this, but M&L’s marriage equality video “Same Love,” is beautiful. It features a heavenly-groove chorus vocal by Mary Lambert and a brilliant lyric by Macklemore that ranges from his own fear of being labeled gay as a kid to denouncing the culture of homophobia in hip-hop.
Macklemore then calls out the Church for its contributions to the oppression of gay people, but ends up reclaiming the Gospel, saying his religious upbringing also taught him to love unconditionally. The song contains a quote from 1 Corinthians 13, repeated over and over again: “Love is patient, love is kind.”
And here’s the kicker. If you watch the video complete with credits, the rappers give a shout-out to All Pilgrims Church in Seattle. It’s not clear what role the UCC/Disciples congregation plays in the video—possibly the setting for the wedding scene or providing the minister—but this is exactly the kind of outreach I’m hoping liberal Protestant churches will make. Don’t set up a “Christian alternative” to culture, structure your message in such a way that the mainstream culture will find it irresistible.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, forgotten blues great.
Thanks to American Masters on PBS, I was recently introduced to the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the godmothers of gospel, rock, and R&B. I rushed to the Internet and bought a compilation of remastered recordings from her Decca years from the late 30’s through the late 40’s called The Gospel of the Blues.
Tharpe not only sang gospel tunes in a silky smooth voice, but she was also an innovator on the guitar. Her meticulously picked swing matches her carefully enunciated, preacher-like diction. In her guitar you hear the embryonic sounds of the rock and R&B artists she influenced, like Little Richard, Johnny Cash, and Chuck Berry.
Some of her hits of Gospel classics, including “This Train” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” are sung in the old Delta Blues style with just Sister Rosetta’s voice and genius guitar in the background. “Nobody’s Fault,” first made famous by Blind Willie Johnson, has since been recorded by such artists as Led Zeppelin, Me’shell Ndegeocello, and Ben Harper.
Tharpe’s gospel message is clear, but of course she didn’t learn those guitar licks in the choir loft. The lady spent some time in clubs and juke joints, and this contact with the “sinful world” comes across in popular recordings like “My Man and I,” and “Tall Skinny Papa,” songs that scandalized her church followers.
In fact, Tharpe had as difficult a life you might expect for a blues musician, struggling through relationships with both men and women, fighting the indignities of touring and performing in the segregated South, and eventually losing her leg to diabetes and dying of a stroke at age 54.
Her life experiences lend a note of credibility to Gospel warning songs like, “There Are Strange Things Happening Every Day,” and “The Natural Facts.” These songs admonish against “backsliding” and preachers who have spent too much time at college (uh oh, I’m screwed). Yet despite their warning tone, the songs don’t lose their joyful bluesy bounce.
The finest recordings on this album are Sister Rosetta’s collaborations with talented background vocalists, including Marie Knight, Sister Tharpe’s sometime lover. Their recordings of “Didn’t It Rain” and “Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air” are meticulous contrapuntal trios between Sister, Knight, and the guitar; these women clearly made beautiful music together.
The song “Jonah” should be called “Jonah and the Wail,” because of Sister’s magnificent vocal glissandos that emulate the wavy swallow and spit-up of Jonah’s trek. And the song comes with a dose of humor as Sister sings the chorus:
Oh some people don’t believe
That a whale could him receive,
But that does not make my song at all untrue.
Why, there are wales on every side,
With their big mouths open wide,
Just take care my friend, or one will swallow you.
Her recording of “Down by the Riverside” with a male gospel quartet has been entered into the collection of the Library of Congress. Besides its historical significance as a precursor to rock n’ roll with its boogie-woogie piano and guitar duet, it’s just a charmer all around. I dare anyone to listen to Sister’s scat-jazzy “No-no-no-no-no-no-no,” answer to the quartet’s “Ain’t gonna study war no more” and not be happy.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the embodiment of a great truth, that the Blues is not “sad” music. Even when it seems to be about the most difficult things: addiction, lost love, the oppressions of poverty and racism, Blues is about human beings refusing to be buried by their situation. The music is a life cry for dignity and a lamentation prayer for a better life to come. And in the case of Sister Tharpe’s Blues Gospel, more often than not, it’s an expression of unmitigated joy.