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May 30, 2006

Never mind the sidelocks: David Conway on the Hasidic musical superstars Matisyahu and Josef Gusikov

Posted by David Conway

David Conway reflects on a modern Hasidic musical superstar - Matisyahu - and his equally unlikely antecedent - Josef Gusikov.

I was fascinated by the recent newspaper reviews of the rap concerts given by the singer Matisyahu. For those who have missed out on this phenomenon, Matisyahu is a Hasidic Jew, born in West Chester, PA, as Matthew Miller. Hasidism is a orthodox Jewish movement following the teachings of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1698-1760), also known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), or by the acronym Besht.

Besht left no written legacy, but a vivid collection of tales, parables and sayings collected by his followers. His teachings cut across the rigorous intellectual traditions of Jewish interpretation in favour of a more "romantic", revelatory and personal approach. The followers of the various sects of Hasidism (for Judaism, the progenitor of Christianity and Islam, is irremediably schismatic by nature) can generally be identified by their retention of the dress of their eighteenth-century Polish forbears – Londoners will be familiar with seeing them around their stronghold area of Stamford Hill. Matisyahu keeps the gear, as well as all the traditional Jewish social injunctions such as not being alone in a room with a female who is not a relative, (and of course never giving a gig on the Sabbath). He is also however evidently a highly skilled rap singer who received rapturous reception from fans and critics, even those who came armed with heavy scepticism.

As rap remains one of the exceptionally few areas of music to which I am wholly averse, I refrain from any critique of Matisyahu's art. But he is not as it happens the first Hasid to benefit from rave reviews and ecstatic fans on the European concert tour circuit. That honour belongs to Josef Gusikov, a klezmer musician born in Shklov (now in Belarus) in 1806 and who died at the age of 31 in Aachen after a remarkable career.

In his youth a chest infection (presaging the tuberculosis which eventually killed him) prevented Gusikov from pursuing his father's instrument, the flute. So he created – or, according to some, merely refined - a new concert instrument. Essentially it was a chromatic xylophone, laid out as a cimbalom (that is, with sequential notes alternatively on the left and right) and resting on bales of straw which acted as its "sounding board". On this meagre contraption, called by him, unimaginatively, "the wood and straw instrument", he developed an astounding virtuosity, in terms not only of speed and accuracy, but also of emotion and interpretation, which caused his fame to spread beyond his home area. Playing at progressively notable centres, accompanied by two fiddles and a bass played by his brothers, and always in full Hasidic rig, he at last reached Odessa, where the artistic governor retained him to entertain his guests, who included the Polish violinist Lipinskí and the French poet Lamartine. These persuaded Gusikov that his talents deserved to be heard in Western Europe.

In 1835 he began his tour of the Western concert circuit. Successful in Prague, his initial reception in Vienna was poor until his cause was taken up by the influential journalist Moritz Saphir. From then on he had one triumph over another, drawing packed audiences (including on more than one occasion Felix Mendelssohn) as he moved across Germany.

He arrived in Paris with a recommendation to the king of Grand Opera, Giacomo Meyerbeer, from the pianist and friend of Schumann, Ferdinand Hiller. There, Gusikov became a succès fou. Liszt, in a rather contemptuous review, called him a "Paganini of the pavements" and accused him of fitting in as many notes as possible into the shortest possible time, (surely a case of the pot calling the kettle black). A Gusikov coiffure, imitating his sidelocks, became de rigueur for fashionable Parisian ladies. The journals, as in Germany, expressed amazement at his gaunt, expressionless visage, his other-worldly clothing, his bizarre instrument, his extraordinary skill and the transcendent beauty of his music. In his repertoire he included both variations on fashionable opera arias of the day and pieces based on Jewish and synagogue folk-music – a blending of traditions which Matisyahu has clearly maintained.

So successful was Gusikov that, according to the modern klezmer musician and historian, Alex Jacobowitz, (no mean xylophonist himself), a number of similarly-clad imitators sprang up across Europe – the ancestors, perhaps, of the Elvis impersonator. By the way, there is perhaps a learned treatise to be written about Jewish xylophone players – my father recalls a comedy xylophone act in the London Jewish music halls before WWII.

According to some sources, Gusikov died on stage with his kaftan, if not his boots, on. Another version is that he pined away with grief after his "wood and straw instrument" was stolen. It does not matter which is true, really – either would befit a legend. For it is Gusikov's star status, rather than his undoubted musicianship, which is of significance. His career timing was perfect, at the start of the age of music as show-business.

A wealthy European new bourgeoisie wanted to be entertained, and it demanded novelty as well as (or even above) the skills which had been prized by the former main patrons of art, the Church and the aristocracy. In such circumstances, being an "outsider" was if anything an advantage, adding to the performer's novelty value. And indeed since the era of Gusikov, entertainment has been a popular field of aspiration for Europe's immigrant communities – where all that may be necessary to start a career is a modicum of talent and a bit of luck, rather than capital or family connections.

Of course you may get a helping hand from others of your community on your way – you may have noted that Gusikov's supporters Saphir, Hiller, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer were themselves all Jewish. But once you are started, from however far beyond the pale, if you can market yourself correctly and offer the punters what they are seeking, as Gusikov, Matisyahu, Bob Marley, and others have demonstrated, you can pull in huge audiences and get the legend rolling – as much because of, as in spite of, the sidelocks, or the dreadlocks.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Such an interesting little gem does not deserve zero comments - indeed I submitted this to for possible inclusion but they didn't reply.

Posted by: seamus sweeney at June 20, 2006 11:31 AM
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