What’s Jewish about...reggae?

Summer seems to be the right time to talk about this upbeat, uplifting tropical music.

Reggae has two main sources for its inspiration -- life on the island of Jamaica, and the religion there, Rastafari. That word itself is Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, which is a Semitic tongue. The Hebrew equivalent would be Rosh-Tiferet, also meaning the "Leader (literally, "head") who is Revered." This is the title they give to King Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

Rastafari is based on Ethiopian Christianity, but the faith is steeped in the Five Books of Moses. They refer to God as "Jah," one of the Jewish names for God, as in "Hallelujah."

Reggae's best-known performer, Bob Marley, named an entire album for his song Exodus. Like Rastafari practitioners in general, he saw the goal of life as a rejection of the shallow materialism of Babylon, as in his song " Chant Down Babylon," and embracing of the high, pure aspirations of Zion, as in "Zion Train." Babylon, of course, is a famous Jewish place of exile, while Zion is our homeland.

Other Marley songs refer to such Jewish terms as Almighty and Hallelujah, Adam and Eve, Noah, Solomon, and Samson. He also quotes Psalm 121 and Proverbs, and refers to the book of prophets. On his last album, he has a song called "Stiff-Necked Fools," a reference to God's chiding of the Jews as a "stiff-necked people" (Shmot/Exodus 32:9).

Bunny Wailer is one of the Wailers-- both Marley's backing band and artists in their own right. Jewish references in Bunny's songs run from the beginning of the Torah-- The Creation-- to right near the end-- The Book of Jeremiah.

Marley's other followers also refer many times to the Jewish story. Desmond Dekker compares the plight of the poor to that of the Israelites in Egyptian slavery. He also has a song titled "Honor Your Mother and Father, with lyrics taken from the Ten Commandments.

Dennis Brown, in one song,"Africa," refers to both the "lion of Judah" and the "roots of David." In others, he refers to God as Creator, and quotes the 23rd Psalm. He also performs a song based on "By the Waters of Babylon," in this case called " Rivers of Babylon."

Yet another reggae band, The Congos, makes even more Torah references. They especially like the Exodus story, mentioning Moses, Passover, and the Ark of the Covenant. But they cover everyone from Joseph to Daniel, and groups from the Children of Israel to the residents of Sodom and Gomorra.

One Brooklyn-based reggae singer-songwriter goes so far as to call himself Dr. Israel and wear and Magen David when performing. Every song on his debut album is a Torah reference: Deborah, Enoch, Job, Adam and Eve, Solomon and Sheba, David and Goliath, and Psalm 87. His most recent album has a song, " Tetze" with a Hebrew title and lyrics.

Still other reggae performers refer to Torah heroes-- Jacob, Aaron, even Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego. The full lyrics to these songs, and others with Torah sources, can be found here.

The core reggae record studio, Island Records, was founded in Jamaica in 1959 by Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell, who went by just "Chris." At 22, Blackwell became one off the first to record ska music, of which reggae is an offshoot. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which he is an inductee, calls Chris Blackwell "the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music." Blackwell was Jewish--in fact, his mother was Sephardic.

Bob Marley recorded for Island, as did his backing group The Wailers, and the compilation titled Island Reggae Greats shows who else did, too: Jimmy Cliff, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals and Sly and Robbie, for starters.

Meanwhile, many Jewish performers have embraced reggae and worked Jewish themes into it. Most famous, of course, is Matisyahu. He appears with Dr. Israel and others in the documentary Awake Zion about the similarities of Jewish and Rasta culture. But he is hardly the first or only Jewish musician to delve into reggae.

Alan Eder has two albums with reggae versions of Jewish holiday songs: Reggae Passover and Reggae Chanukah. Alan Eder has a Masters in African Music Performance and won a Fulbright to study this music in Nigeria. He later attended a seder and was so struck by its similar themes of redemption and freedom he began to merge the cultures through music.

Another pioneer in this field is David "Solid" Gould. His Adonai and I album so impressed John Zorn, Gould began to record for Zorn's Tzadik label. Just don't confuse that with Zadik, a newer Jewish reggae outfit.

King Django merges not just Jewish themes and images but Jewish music-- namely, klezmer--and reggae on the album Roots and Culture. It's probably the only place to hear "Night Boat to Cairo" by the ska band Madness… in Yiddish. That's not online, but his swingin' Lomir Ale Zingen is. Another band to mix these two sounds even named their act KlezSka; the lead keyboardist, Glenn Tamir, goes by the stage name Skavanagila.

The most outlandish character to marry these two worlds is Ari Ben Moses. He began performing as Ari Lehman… and as an actor. In fact, he played the killer Jason Voorhees in the first Friday the 13th movie. He then went into music, becoming the reggae keyboardist Ari Ben Moses, touring the US, Europe and West Africa, and recording with Tuff Gong Records, another key reggae studio. He married, settled in Chicago, and formed the Ari Ben Moses Band, which had several Jewish numbers. His current band plays horror-fan conventions-- it's called First Jason.

But Ron Wiseman has one of the longest careers in this subgenre. He has a dozen albums with titles like State of Judea, Israel Experience, and Kedusha, and he has recorded with poet Allen Ginsberg.

Reggae has always been popular in sunny Israel, and the influx of Ethiopian musicians has made it even more so. One Israeli reggae act-- that perform in Hebrew, Amharic, and English-- are

Zvuloon Dub System. Others are the non-Ethiopians Rasta Power, Rasdan, and Ketem Paz, whose lead singer is a Chasid. And then there is Alula Tzadik, who merges the musics of his birthplace (Ethiopia), his heritage (Jewish), and his inspiration (Marley) to make a unique sound. His story is as powerful as his message.

Nor is Jewish reggae strictly a man's game. Meet Queen Makedah from tropical, um, Kansas City. Born in the 1970s, she had a recording contract by 16, discovered Bob Marley, visited Israel, and has since recorded several albums, including one called Peace Process.

Reggae's themes are of suffering, but also of redemption from that anguish through reliance on oneself, one's community, the examples set by Biblical ancestors, and God. Sounds… familiar.

Paul Wieder photo 2013
Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!... Read More

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