You can never get everything from an interview into a story. Sometimes you don't want to, but when the interview is good, like mine with orthodox Jewish rapper Matisyahu was last Friday, I find myself pulling my hair out that I can't get the full flavor and story of the conversation into print (in this Friday's Weekend section in advance of his U.S. tour kickoff show at Pompano Beach Amphitheater on Sat May 30).
Luckily, I have a blog. But from all the riches of that conversation (while the 29 year old father of two was walking through Manhattan from a voice lesson - he's singing more now - to a mikvah, a ritual pre-Shabbat bath - and I wonder what all the people passing him on the street thought of his end of that fairly heavy interview) I'd like to tell this story in full. If hurt and dying children, or strong emotions, or long stories make you queasy, stop now. If not, read on.
It concerns We Will Walk, one of my favorite songs on Light, Matis' upcoming album (due out Aug 25 - a miracle to get a CD this far in advance). We Will Walk has a 'she' in it, unusual for Matis, whose songs are almost all directed towards God (a he in his book - but we'll leave that alone). Here's some of the lyrics (click to listen): "You are the only good thing/that I have ever done/we will walk until my blood runs out/until my heart is burned/you are not alone".
So I asked him if it was a love song to a woman, perhaps his wife, as well as to God? And he told me it came from some work he and a friend/teacher, Ephraim Rosenstein, had been doing, studying the stories of a famous 18th century rabbi, Reb Nachman. And then this is what Matisyahu said verbatim.
"He [Nachman] had a son who died and a lot of tragedy in his life, and he stopped teaching traditional Torah and started telling stories. He said most people tell bedtime stories to put kids to sleep, I tell stories to wake them up. The most famous story is Seven Beggars, about 2 children who get lost in the forest. So this song is basically the story of [Nachman] singing to this girl. And what I did from there – I know I’m going on – me and Ephraim we took the story and tried to relate it to a modern day theme. I had heard of some children in Africa that were child soldiers that escaped and were crossing the desert. It got me going creatively thinking of children and the innocence of children sucked into this dark world, pulling yourself out of that and crossing this desert, being this idea this theme a lot of people could relate to in their own spirituality and inner world.
So I had this story in my mind of a boy and girl crossing the desert and he has his arms chopped off because he won't kill, it’s what they do they [the mostly African armies that force children to join them] tell kids to kill their families and if they don’t they’ll cut off their hands. So the picture in my mind was this kid with these bloody stumps speaking to this girl and telling her to continue, and she can go on even without him she’ll still have his memory. That’s We Will Walk - even if you are alone you will continue with the memory of me.Tthat was the inspiration but I didn’t want to be too literal. There’s an aspect of that in all of us, of the mutilated self or the self that doesn’t get a chance, certain experiences that get cut off that don’t’ get a chance to develop."
By the end of this story I was just weeping, so hard it took me a couple minutes before I could ask the next question. (What would you have asked next?). I think my reaction had to do with being a mother; once you have a child, it becomes almost unbearable to hear of violence to children. And I was also so moved by the way Matisyahu layered all these different meanings together, and how he found a redemptive idea in stories that could just make you rip your hair out at how horrible the world can be.
There. What do you think?