Reggae + Hanukkah = Matisyahu; 'Festival of Light' Aims at 'Breaking Down Barriers between People'

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With the recent conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas as background, the music by Matisyahu, the Grammy-nominated Jewish reggae singer, is all the more poignant.

I'm a strong supporter of Israel, Matisyahu says. I've recorded in Israel. I have tons of friends and musicians that live there. To me, it's one of the most, probably the most, beautiful place in the world. And it's very, very fraught with conflict, sort of like the history of the Jewish people.

Matisyahu will perform with his band, the Dub Trio, at Washington's 9:30 Club on Thursday, part of his sixth annual Festival of Light tour, featuring seven unique performances around the country during Hanukkah.

I've always felt a strong connection with Hanukkah, being that my name is Matisyahu, and Matisyahu was the key player in the Hanukkah story with his son, Judah Maccabee, explains the singer. (Matthias - also called Matisyahu, meaning Gift of God in Hebrew - was the Jewish priest who, in the second century B.C., led the Jews in a revolt against their oppressors and regained the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Jewish priests went to relight the temple's menorah, there was only enough oil for one night, though it miraculously lasted for eight, leading to the lighting of the menorah for eight nights during the annual holiday.)

Matisyahu timed the release of his latest single, Happy Hanukkah, last month to coincide with the tour, though he will play songs from all his albums.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Matisyahu's music simply as Jewish reggae. His first album, Shake Off the Dust, Arise, released in 2004, combined roots reggae beats with lyrics based on Hasidic Jewish teachings and prayers, and these themes have remained prevalent in much of his music since.

Yet his full discography is surprisingly diverse, and includes albums heavily influenced by reggae, dance hall, hip-hop and traditional Jewish prayer songs, as well as albums featuring soothing acoustic rock and, recently, catchy pop-inspired tunes.

Originally famous for being the Hasidic reggae star, Matisyahu transformed himself in 2011, cutting off his signature long beard and dying his hair blond, and moving away from Hasidism. His subsequent album, Spark Seeker, released in June, featured a fresh pop sound and more universal themes. Though some songs on the album incorporate aspects of Hasidic Judaism - such as Bal Shem Tov, about the rabbi considered the founder of the sect - others, such as the album's two singles, Sunshine and Live Like A Warrior, express more universal themes about love, hope and personal strength. …