19 February 2006

sinéad and matisyahu : two white takes on marley

war : sinéad o'connor
click on the image below to listen. 4m 06s

It wasn't a surprise to me when Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor came up with a reggae album late last year. In one of the earliest interviews of hers that I read – and this was way back in 1990 when she burst into the charts, thanks to her cover of Prince's Nothing Compares 2U in all her glorious baldness – she said that Bob Marley was one of the people that made her want to be a musician. For a woman known for being daring, there was never any doubt she could and would do something reggae, and Sinéad hinted at it around 1995 when she lent her vocals to the song Empire, written by Rastafarian dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah and produced by Bomb The Bass, a.k.a. Tim Simenon. And let's not forget when she sang War by Marley a cappella on Saturday Night Live in 1992 – a performance more remembered for her tearing a picture of Pope John Paul II and delivering the infamous line, "Fight the real enemy."

Sinéad has regeretted the act, so don't count on Pope Benedict being given the same honor should Sinéad ever perform the song in public again. In Throw Down Your Arms, her first album since her second retirement, Sinéad finally makes a proper tribute to reggae, and she fittingly caps the 12-song cover album with a new version of War. It's a faithful tribute, with near identical instrumentation flawlessly swirling around her never-do-wrong vocals. She changes the lyrics a bit, substituting "sisters in Africa" for "brothers in Angola" in the third verse. A feminist and human-rights advocate, Sinéad probably did that to stress not just the usual abuse that women everywhere suffer, but also to address female circumcision in some African societies, a practice done to suppress a woman's sexual desires and perhaps to also symbolize a woman's faithfulness to her husband. That slight change gave to me a new meaning to the phrase "sub-human bondage" in the same verse. Mad props to Sinéad for this work. I'm forever a fan.

chop 'em down : matisyahu
click on the image below to listen. 4m 03s

When you hear a lanky 26-year-old Hasidic Jew from New York singing reggae with beat-boxing and hip-hop twists, you can probably say you've heard it all. Matisyahu is Matthew Miller, who had had a non-Orthodox upbringing until he went on a school-sponsored trip to Israel. A big fan of Bob Marley with dreadlocks to prove it, Miller ended up staying for two years to deeply immerse himself in Judaism. He returned to New York at 19 with a big idea: to marry the sound of reggae with rhymes from his faith. It sounds like a joke, but Miller mastered it in a few years, and last year he announced his arrival with a new name and a debut ablum, Live at Stubb's, which received rave reviews. His new album, Youth, will probably take him mainstream. Look beyond the idea of a white man effecting a Jamaican accent (thanks to Sting, the association hasn't been positive) and you will find that his voice is not only powerful but also soulful. Like his onstage performances infused with madman vigor, Matisyahu's singing is compelling. Reggae has always been associated with resistance and dissent, but neither seems to be the subject of Matisyahu's music. In Chop 'Em Down, from the live album, he tells the story of Moses and Joseph, two unlikely people – both strangers in their kingdoms – who cleared their own paths to become leader or savior of their people. I love this line: Strange ways running through the maze, strange ways always lost in the desert trying to find your place. Matisyahu flies straight in the face of today's reggae artists, and that's a good thing. Watch an 11-minute short film on Matisyahu here, and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live here.

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