The Reggae Rabbi
By Ilan Saragosti
The Jewish Tribune – August 14, 2003
When most of us consider Jewish music we think of Klezmer, Chasidic Nigguns, or Israeli music. But Jewish Reggae? Not in a million years. Yet that is precisely what Ron Wiseman, aka the King of Jewish Reggae, has been playing for a decade. “I guess I’m what happens when you take a secular Jew raised on blues, R&B, and reggae and imbue him with religion-you get the Jewish Reggae guy” says the Toronto-bred Wiseman.
Wiseman has taken his brand of Reggae far and wide throughout the Toronto Jewish circuit, managing to put out five CD’s while playing everything from weddings to singles events. Yet his proudest musical moments where when he and his band were regulars at the Tropicana, a Jamaican nightclub in Toronto. “We first showed up as fill-ins for the regular band,” recalls Wiseman, whose brother Bob was the original keyboardist for the rock band Blue Rodeo. “Everyone in there was black and you can tell they were thinking ‘who are these four Jewish guys-the roadies?” But we played authentic Jamaican Reggae and Ska and before long we were playing there regularly.”
Wiseman feels his musical leanings to the African continent are natural, perhaps even biological. He has a theory which he admits may be far fetched that when the Israelites were exiled his family went south into Africa, the remnants of this exile being reflected in his music. “My sound is very rootsy. I have a rhythmic style when I play the keyboard, which is different from how others play it; I use it more like a drum.”
Wiseman’s inclination towards Africa has led to an equally cautious response from the Jews as from the black community. As a result he refers to himself as a “square peg in a round hole.” Yet he is convinced that his music thoroughly belongs to both worlds. One listen to Wiseman’s music and it is clear that it is indeed a strange, but effective blend of roots reggae and religious lyrics. While the songs rarely make explicit reference to the Torah, the words clearly have spiritual overtones.
His transition from secular to religious Jew was a long, slow development, which he considers a work in progress. Ironically, the spark to his religious conversion came not from Judaism, but from Christianity. Wiseman recalls that a non-Jewish friend constantly referred to the tenets of Christianity and he had no way of retorting with Judaism’s view on the issues. As a result he dove into Jewish texts and has not looked back.
With such a spiritual approach to life one would expect a conflict with the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” ethos of the rock music scene, but Wiseman insists there is no contradiction. “Throughout Jewish history there were melodies and styles of music that were taken from somewhere else and made into Jewish music; that in itself is a very Jewish concept,” says Wiseman. “Judaism believes that things are not naturally holy or unholy, it’s what you do with them that dictates what they are. So my music is a vehicle to express my thoughts, even if my thoughts may be different from what other people do with this style of music.”
But alas, all good things must come to an end. After years of dabbling, Wiseman finally made Aliyah this month, taking his show permanently to Israel. The move is a no brainer for Wiseman; he feels Israel’s spirituality and youthful exuberance are perfectly suited for his brand of Reggae. Already he has put together a new band that is scheduled to play next to the grave of King David on Mount Zion, where the original Jewish rock band-the Diaspora Yeshiva Band-performed for years just after the Sabbath.
Still, he has mixed feelings about leaving his hometown. “It’s always bittersweet to step from one chapter in life to another”, says Wiseman, “but to our fans all I can say is were not leaving, we’re just moving the party to Mount Zion.”