Reggae band Rebelution makes surf music for the soul

He writes music based on ‘tweaked’ Jewish prayers, but Eric Rachmany feels spiritual just sitting in his basketball shorts

Back when Eric Rachmany was just starting out with Rebelution, the surf-rock reggae group, he remembers hearing about another Jewish artist making waves in what is sometimes called reggae fusion, a blend of traditional reggae sounds with rock and pop.

Now Rachmany finds himself headlining the Good Vibes Summer Tour alongside Matisyahu, who despite a dramatic shift in religiosity has remained one of the best-known names in the genre that both artists share. What has changed, though, is Rebelution’s place in the music world.

Led by Rachmany, Rebelution has found its way out of backyard stages in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the group was founded, and onto the top of the charts.

Speaking by phone from Montana, where the whirlwind tour had brought Rebelution, Matisyahu, the Bay Area-based hip-hop group Zion I and Bermuda’s Collie Budz, Rachmany reflected on the influence Judaism has had on his music and what it’s like touring with Matisyahu following his transformation a yarmulke-donning Orthodox Jew to an artist who expresses his Judaism through less obvious means — much like Rachmany.

“He’s like, ‘There’s no reason I should look or have to act a certain way to feel the spirituality that I feel,'” Rachmany said. “I really identify with that because I’m not a religious person but I feel my spirituality even wearing my basketball shorts right now.”

 Eric Rachmany of Rebelution (photo credit: courtesy)
Eric Rachmany of Rebelution (photo credit: courtesy)

Rachmany was raised in San Francisco by his late father, Yoram Rachmany, who taught and choreographed Israeli dance, and a mother, Lilly Kharrazi, who specializes in dance ethnology, which blends the study of dance with various other disciplines. His parents clearly influenced Rachmany, who majored in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and incorporates sounds from world music into many of Rebelution’s songs.

The Israeli and Jewish music Rachmany heard growing up have also played a role.

“Life on the Line,” one of the singles on Rebelution’s most recent album “Peace of Mind” features a strong Middle Eastern influence and Rachmany said it was influenced by a Jewish prayer he heard while working on the album.

“A lot of the compositions really stem from a lot of the Jewish prayers I heard growing up,” Rachmany, who writes nearly all the group’s music, said. “A lot of the stuff that I come up with is in one way or another a Jewish prayer that’s somewhat tweaked to fit my style.”

‘A lot of the stuff that I come up with is in one way or another a Jewish prayer that’s somewhat tweaked to fit my style’

Rachmany, who attended Jewish day school in San Francisco, said most people won’t pick up on the influence of Jewish melodies on Rebelution’s music. But whether or not they realize what partially inspires the group’s unique sound, Rachmany and Rebelution have won over many fans in their nine years together. Rebelution has landed four top 10 albums on Billboard’s reggae charts and their debut album, “Courage to Grow,” was picked as iTune’s Editor’s Choice pick for best Reggae album of 2007.

On top of their laid back vibe and successful mix of traditional reggae sounds with other genres, a big part of Rebelution’s appeal lies in its underlying message of spreading “good vibes,” as Rachmany puts it (a goal enshrined in the name of the current tour).

“I just want to spread love and positivity and that’s something that I think reggae music has a lot of and you don’t really find that in a lot of other genres of music,” the 29-year-old artist explained.

“The theme of tikkun olam — healing the world — is something that my mom would always tell me about,” Rachmany said, hinting at where his desire to create music that makes people feel good came from.

And beyond chart-topping albums and sold out venues, Rachmany thinks Rebelution has been achieved its message of spreading positivity.

Rebelution's goal is to spread 'good vibes.' (photo credit: courtesy)
Rebelution’s goal is to spread ‘good vibes.’ (photo credit: courtesy)

“Just hearing people come up to us and tell us how we got them through a tough time and helped them see things more positively –that makes it all worth it,” Rachmany said. “Sometimes the road is tough, but we know we’re doing a good thing by getting out there and playing for the people.”

While Rachmany is the only Jewish member of Rebelution, he said touring with Matisyahu has piqued the interests of band mates — Rory Carey, Wesley Finley, Marley D Williams and Khris Royal.

“They want to know what Shabbat is all about and why [Matisyahu] can’t perform on Friday nights or until the sun goes down on Satuday,” Rachmany said.

And as much as his Jewish upbringing has influenced Rebelution’s sound, Rachmany has also embraced a diverse array of cultures through his studies at university, and even as a child at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco.

“We learned about Judaism obviously, but one of the things I really appreciated was that we went to the church next door, we went to the Armenian school down the block and we learned a little bit about other religions and always opened the door to other religions,” Rachmany, who is of Persian Jewish ancestry, said of his time at Brandeis.

The name “Rebelution” stemmed from a desire to infuse the band with a message of nonviolent agitation for social change. Perhaps because of that lofty goal and Rachmany’s embrace of a wide array of cultures, he had a more mellow approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than one is sometimes used to hearing.

“I don’t know if I have an answer as far as creating peace,” Rachmany said. “My job is to have people focus on the beauty behind culture and religion — that’s what I’m here to do, I’m here to create positive vibes.”

Reggae fans in Israel might get to experience those positive vibes first hand sometime in the not-too-distant future.

“Israel is definitely on my list to play,” Rachmany, who last visited the country around three years ago following a European tour, said. “I have a lot of family in Tel Aviv and I keep promising them I’m going to come out there and play a show.”

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