- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Young Israelis sporting dreadlocks and wool Rastafarian caps rocked to the beat of homegrown Hebrew reggae bands at a recent music festival, a sign of reggae’s steadily increasing popularity here.

Kibbutz Tzeelim, a tiny community in Israel’s Negev Desert, welcomed 1,600 reggae fans to its second annual Spring Festival — an increase of 25 percent over last year.

“In a country like Israel, with all the stress, this music — the message and the melody — makes people more relaxed,” says disc jockey Tal Grubstein, aka Dr. Reggae, who helped run the sound system at the festival. “When these people all get together at a festival like Tzeelim, you can feel the vibe. There’s no pushing, no aggression, no violence.”

Mr. Grubstein became a reggae fan in the late 1970s after hearing some imported records while serving in the Israeli army. He soon made a mission of spreading the sound among Israelis. During his years as a bus driver for Egged, Israel’s largest public transport operator, he played Bob Marley and other reggae artists to his passengers. With the help of his children, he founded the Official Israeli Reggae Site on the Web. The site hosts the only nonstop all-Jewish reggae online radio show in the world.

The connection between reggae and Judaism may not seem self-evident, but Jewish reggae artists are a growing phenomenon in the United States as well as Israel.

Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller), who has recorded three albums, is an observant Hasidic Jew in New York who sings Hebrew prayers in a reggae style. He divides his time between his yeshiva and the stage, where he plays to sold-out crowds. An American band called Adonai and I performs roots reggae based on Hebrew prayers, melodies and psalms. King Django is a ska hipster from Brooklyn who combines reggae rhythms with Yiddish lyrics.

“This kind of music is about the message,” Mr. Grubstein says. “Don’t give up, look ahead, stand up, peace, respect your brother. People get the message, and they like it.”

Kibbutznik Udi Barak is one who got the message. As a teenager, he attended a concert where reggae giants Alpha Blondy — from the Ivory Coast — and Ziggy Marley performed. Along with other members of Kibbutz Tzeelim, Mr. Barak became a fan.

The kibbutzniks discovered that when they played reggae at their communal pub, the Well, more and more people came to listen. So they decided to invite a band from Jamaica to perform there. Since then, their little pub in the middle of the Negev Desert has been a popular reggae spot, known to hipsters, Rastafarians and bands all over Israel.

Eventually, the kibbutz decided to host a reggae festival.

Mr. Barak says reggae artists came from all over Israel for the first festival and played for free to help make it a success. Eight Israeli bands played this year, including the group Tmimay Deim, which means Of the Same Mind.

“Our message with our music is mostly about harmony,” said Tmimay Deim’s co-founder Yoav Ben Yaakov. “We try to make people understand that you don’t have to believe in war, and you don’t have to fight for peace. You can try to find the middle way, based on a pure, simple understanding that love unites everybody.”

As the midday heat rose, Tmimay Deim’s lead singer cried out to the dancing crowd, “Shabbat Shalom,” wishing them a peaceful Sabbath. Then the band launched into a song that opened with the distinctive strains of klezmer music before transitioning into a familiar reggae beat.

While the easy slide from a klezmer riff to a Caribbean tune may seem startling, reggae is often fueled by traditional Jewish themes, such as the exile in Babylon and the longing for Zion, the homeland — whether this means Israel or Africa.

Both ultra-Orthodox Jews and Rastafarians observe strict dietary laws and require married women to cover their hair. The men have distinctive hairstyles, whether side curls or dreadlocks — which Rastafarians say come from the Nazarite Vow in the Old Testament (Numbers 6:5), “There shall no razor come upon his head.”

However, another disc jockey who worked at Tzeelim’s festival this year, Ras Kulcha, thinks it’s a stretch to relate Judaism to Rastas.

Shirtless in the desert heat, his face and shoulders framed by an impressive set of dreadlocks, he says he embraces Rastafarianism as a philosophy rather than a religion.

“The message I get from reggae as an Israeli is about fighting capitalism, fighting racism, fighting fascism,” he says. “There are so many streams, it’s hard to say exactly what reggae means, but it’s about delivering a message.”

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