Reggae's Jewish Connection
In 1997, writer, producer and performer Michael Goldwasser founded reggae collective Easy Star All-Stars, and has since then released half a dozen albums with names like “Dub Side of the Moon,” “Radiodread,” and “Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band.” Their latest album, a reggae-homage to Michael Jackson, “Thrillah,” slows down singles like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” to a dubby reverb. Goldwasser, whose father was a rabbi for a Reform congregation, talked to The Arty Semite about the affinity between Judaism and Rastafarian cultures and why Israel is the next big reggae scene.
Mordechai Shinefield: Your father was a rabbi; did that have an impact on the kind of music you grew up listening to?
Michael Goldwasser: My grandparents had a nice collection of Yiddish and cantorial music that I listened to, and from going to synagogue I knew a lot of the Jewish life-cycle and holiday songs. I still listen to vinyl so I’ll break out my grandfather’s old records and it brings back nice memories.
When did you get into reggae?
My first memory of listening to reggae was driving around with my Dad; I was eight. It wasn’t until my early teens though when someone turned me onto Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Catch a Fire” that I really got into it. Even then I realized the connection between reggae and being Jewish.
What is that connection?
Reggae music as we know it today would not exist without Jewish input. That’s not to say reggae is Jewish music — it also wouldn’t exist without Jamaican music. So many English reggae lyrics come straight from Psalms and the Jewish Bible.
The religion itself, Rastafari, was formed in the ‘30s in Jamaica. Jamaica was a Christian country (highest capita number of churches than any country in the world). A lot of the popular Christian sects were ones that really were into the Old Testament. The founders of Rastafarianism had been hearing all these Jewish scriptures, growing up going to Church. One of the basic tenets of Rastafari is believing in the return of black people to Africa. Going back to where you came from, like Zionism.
Are there challenges performing reggae as a Jewish man? Is there ever a concern that your music isn’t authentic enough?
I’ve been playing reggae for over 20 years. I’ve played in lots of situations where I’m the only Jewish person involved. There’s never been any tension or conflict. I think among people who play music, they’re at another level of accepting each other. Maybe it sounds corny, but we just want to make music together. Most musicians are chilled and want to share experiences. I’ve never felt weird about it.
I guess I understand for some people who aren’t from New York, and aren’t exposed to that culture, it might seem like we’re the Other. I have heard expressions of anti-Semitism in the reggae world before — I think that’s a part of the greater world. I don’t think it means Jamaicans are anti-Semitic. I think it means that anywhere you go, you can hear that.
Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nahash plays horns on the album and you’re heavily involved in the Israeli reggae scene. How did that happen?
My wife and I, before we had kids, we went to Israel and volunteered on a kibbutz for three months. That was the first time as an adult that I realized there was a big reggae scene in Israel. I wound up DJing at some reggae parties at the kibbutz and clubs in Be’er Sheva. A couple years later, in 2006, I reached out to the DJ I knew there and had spent time with and said I’d love to produce some reggae in Israel. He hooked me up with a young band called Hatikva 6 and we had good vibes. So I flew over to Israel and produced their first studio album.
Since then I’ve worked with a lot of reggae artists. I kinda even know the reggae scene in Israel more than the one in New York. There’s a lot of talent there. One of my goals is to bring that talent around the world. I encourage artists to do material in English to have wider international appeal. I co-produced an album with a band called Koach Rasta (Rasta Power). I convinced them to rewrite a lot of the material to make it work in English. I love Israel and I love reggae, if I can combine the two, that’s a cool project for me.
If people want to listen to some Israeli reggae music, who would you recommend they look up?
There aren’t any Israeli reggae bands that have blown up internationally yet. Hatikvah 6 — I hooked them up with someone who brought them for an extensive tour in 2008 in the US. They played all over the place in the U.S. They’ve done shows in Europe as well. Rasta Power could have some international success. Besides having some great music and lyrics, they can sing in English. Zvuloon Dub System — they could be great. Every Israeli reggae band has a different sound. Hatikvah Shesh is influenced by current Jamaican dancehall and roots. Rasta Power is more of a ‘70s, early ‘80s vibe, with hip-hop. Zvuloon Dub System sound very early ‘70s in Jamaica, very authentic old school sound. There’s a lot of great bands and artists over there. I would love for them to get more international recognition. For me it’s also a form of PR for Israel. Not political, but so many people have no idea about Israel at all. They think people just ride camels all over the place.