So I was fortunate enough to catch the incredible Westbound Train in concert last month when they swung through the Midwest. For those not aware, Westbound Train is a hard-working group of musicians from the East Coast that draw on the rich traditions of American Soul and R&B and the Jamaican sounds of Reggae, Ska and Rocksteady to create unforgettable, inspring music. While at the show, I was able to catch up with their keyboard player, Gideon Blumenthal and talk to him about the connection between Reggae and Judaism, Matisyahu, what playing the music means to him and more. Enjoy!
David’s Voice: I’m with Gideon Blumenthal of Westbound Train here at the House of Blues in Cleveland. First off, can you tell me about your background both as a musician and as far as your religious upbringing is concerned.
Gideon Blumenthal: Absolutely. Music wise, I went to the Berklee College of Music playing piano and have been taking lessons since I was about 7. My high school had a pretty good music program; I played in a few bands in high school but nothing too serious. I didn’t really have ‘gigs’. In fact, I never even realized that bands like us existed when I was in high school or just in general. I thought it was just bar bands and then big time bands. I never realized there was anything in between.
As far as Judaism, I had an interesting upbringing because my father was raised Orthodox in Brooklyn and my mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors that came over to the states in ’47 or ’48 just after the war. They became quite involved in the Conservative and Reform movement when they got here. One of my mom’s closest childhood friends was actually Rabbi Jay Kaufman and his family, who was a very important part of the Reform movement here in the United States in the 50’s and 60’s. So growing up, I definitely had a hodge podge of everything. I mean, at one point, we actually belonged to a Reform congregation, a Conservative congregation, an Orthodox congregation and even a Reconstructionist congregation. I went to a Conservative school all the way up to high school and even the first few years of high school I was putting on Tefilin every day. Now I still try to stay pretty observant but I think it’s easier to stay disciplined when you’re younger because you grow up and see more of what the world has to offer and it can be easy to lose focus. But I’ve definitely had a lot of exposure to different sects of Judaism.
DV: So having the background you do as far as both Judaism and music are concerned, I’m sure you know the long tradition of Jewish music throughout history. Now your band does not by any means make “Jewish music” but I wanted to know if any of your influence in the music you make comes from the Jewish musical tradition.
GB: Sure. Well, I got into reggae when I was about 15 and I immediately heard the connection between Judaism and Reggae, as well as the Rasta culture in general. In the music itself, I heard a lot of the minor feels, the upbeats of simcha and klezmer music as being similar to Ska and Reggae. I was always waiting for myself or somebody else to come along and put the two together. And the first time I heard that solid connection was this band called Adonai and I, which contained members of John Brown’s Body, another really good Reggae band. I found them in college and it blew me away. So at one point I went to see them perform and Matisyahu was actually performing there as well, but this was before anybody knew who he was. I thought he was the mashgiach or something, you know? It was Saturday night, right after Shabbat ended and I was like, “who is this person walking around?” But yea, I always felt the connection, always wanted to do something with it, and always felt that it kind of legitimized my interest in Rasta culture and Reggae.
DV: Having traveled around the world with your band, have you ever run into any weird situations on account of your Jewish identity or has it ever come into conflict with the work you do?
GB: Well when I first got in the band, I was the only Jewish person…well there was one guy, Alex Stern, who was half-Jewish, but I was certainly the only one who kept kosher. So it was interesting exposing my band mates to that because I’m sure they had met Jewish people but they had never met someone with that level of observance. Around the world, I’ll say this…definitely in Europe and even as close to home as New York City at the old Knitting Factory, it really bums me out… I don’t know why people are doing it but you go into the green room and you’ll see a swastika and it really hits home, in a bad way. But you go overseas and you see it too, not so much in Germany. In fact I’m pretty sure in Germany drawing a swastika can land you a hefty fine, if not some sort of jail time. But that’s the only thing I’ve seen really. In fact, during our last European tour, we took a day to go visit an old concentration camp in Germany and that was very special and humbling. As far as the work we do as a band, I’ve definitely missed out on a lot of big holidays being on the road, I try not to go out for Yom Kippur. There was one year we were touring Europe during Pesach and yea it’s almost inevitable when you are touring that much. There are so many Jewish holidays that it’s just bound to happen, not even mentioning Shabbat.
DV: So you’ve mentioned Reggae bands like Adonai and I and John Brown’s Body, both of which lean toward more spiritual feeling in their music. Do you ever feel like your connection to Reggae is something spiritual?
GB: Um, I think at one point definitely. These days, not so much. I think when I was younger I felt more of that spiritual connection. Like, I remember seeing John Brown’s Body when I was younger. It was on a Friday night, one of my first Friday nights in Boston, freshman year of college. And they opened with their instrumental version of L’cha Dodi and it was just awesome! I was like, “It’s Friday night, I’m out, I’m in college, I’m Jewish, this is Jewish. I know what they’re playing, no one else knows what’s going on! This is cool!” But I think now, you know, I still love Roots Rock Reggae, but I’m more akin to the older Reggae sounds, the Ska, the Rocksteady. And that music has, overall, a less spiritual feel and more of just a groove and feel-good kind of vibe to it. So I think now it’s probably less, but I always still recognize and appreciate and give respect to the connection between Judaism and Reggae via Rasta culture. If you ever have time, there is a great documentary called Awake Zion, which is hard to get your hands on. But they interview quite a number of people in there: King Django, David Gould from Adonai and I, Matisyahu before he got big. They really explore the culture full circle from meeting some Rastas at a sound system in New York to actually going down to Jamaica and all the way to Israel and meeting Rastas who live down in the Negev who are serious about the whole thing. It’s a great film and really sheds light to people who don’t realize the amazing amount of similarities between the two cultures. Check it out if you can find a copy.
DV: Cool, I’ll definitely look into that. So there are a number of people you’ve brought up that have mixed Jewish music with reggae, people like King Django, Adonai and I, Matisyahu, etc. Now, Matisyahu was neither the first nor the only person to do that. But why do you think he’s seen so much popularity when others haven’t?
GB: I think he’s seen so much popularity because of the fact that he’s very visibly Jewish. You know, you look at him and most people associate the black hat and the beard and the tzitzit with Judaism. So for example, most people I think if you asked them wouldn’t even know that King Django is Jeff Baker, from Canarsie, Brooklyn. I think Matisyahu has done very well also because he is a ba'al teshuva, you know? At one point he wasn’t religious, so he has that element of secular music. I mean I saw him open for 311 a few summers ago all the kids were digging it hard. It really does cross religions and boundaries. Also, the fact he hasn’t been so specific to Reggae has helped him. He does Hip-Hop, he does beatboxing, which is more accessible. From his very first record, he was billed almost as more of a Hip-Hop artist than as a Reggae artist and I think that’s helped him. And I do think he’s talented but I think that the minute he went back to being Matthew Miller, from West Chester Pennsylvania, he’d lose his career. The fact that he’s got this persona, Matisyahu, that’s it. It’s a shtick and unfortunately that is what sells music today.
DV: Yea, I hear you. Well moving along, I know you have some family in Israel and have been over there a number of times. Israel, as it turns out, actually has quite a good Reggae scene and I wanted to know what your experience, if any, has been with it and any impressions or thoughts you have about it.
GB: Well, the first time I went to Israel was actually right when I was getting into Reggae and Rastafarianism and the whole culture. Being in Israel that summer, I saw a lot of that first hand, especially hanging out and helping at an Ethiopian absorption center. Also, just being in the place that is Zion, the place that songs have been written about for years, I was getting to experience so much. Then I didn’t go back to Israel for about 8 years and it was over that time that I really got in to playing the music. So when I went back 3 years ago, I saw that the Reggae scene there had exploded. I had heard from my family that lived there about this Rasta commune that lived down in the Negev and about different festivals that go on down there. So when I was there I said to myself that I had to make it to a show. So I ended up going to see this band called Coach Rasta, which means Rasta Power. They were actually just a cover band, but man, they sounded good. I’ve seen a couple other bands as well and met a bunch of the guys that play around the scene and it’s just a great scene. The Skatalites actually just went over there for the first time and they apparently did really well. But any time I go back, I try to find out what’s going on and make it to a show because it is such a neat thing they have going on.
DV: That’s great. Do you think the perception or appreciation they have for the music over there is different than it is in the states?
GB: I think in Israel there is different perception on everything. There’s definitely a very European and Middle Eastern influence there. So music would fall into that. But in general I think people in Israel just live it up a little more because they know how fragile and precious life is in general. So I think they do appreciate music and other things a little more that we might take for granted here in the states. I mean I’ve never played a show in Israel but I’ve played in a bunch of other countries and I think that a lot of other countries appreciate artists and musicians a lot better than the U.S. does. Like for instance tonight, at this show, you walk in and the people here are thinking, “Who are these guys and how are they going to make me money?” Whereas overseas, it’s like, “Alright, thank you for coming first of all and we appreciate who you are and what you do. And because we appreciate that, we’re going to take care of you.” So that’s a big difference you see between overseas and the states and I hope it’s that way in Israel too, although I’m not sure.
DV: Well, Gideon that’s all the questions I’ve got, thanks for taking time to talk to me.
GB: No problem, thanks for having me.
To check out Gideon's band, Westbound Train, and hear their music go to http://www.westboundtrain.net
To learn more about the film Gideon mentioned, Awake Zion, go to http://www.awakezion.net/