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Feature Article

Pharaoh’s Daughter reinterprets a world of musical tradition
by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Nov. 03, 2000) - Basya Schechter’s musical reinterpretations of ancient Jewish texts combining prayers or psalms with old and new melodies and world-beat textures are often considered to be at the cutting edge of contemporary Jewish music.

But as Schechter herself is quick to point out, she functions within an ancient, longstanding tradition of putting liturgical texts to music, dating all the way back to the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple. “All Jewish music is traditional texts and new music of its time,” said Schechter, who brings her Jewish/world-beat fusion ensemble, Pharaoh’s Daughter, to Club Helsinki in Great Barrington next Thursday, November 9, at 9.

As it happens, Schechter is on intimate terms with those traditional texts and the traditional melodies to which they’ve been put. She was raised in a traditional Jewish family in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and she studied in yeshiva - Jewish religious school -- through high school and beyond. Speaking in a recent phone interview from her downtown New York apartment, Schechter said that creating new musical settings for traditional Jewish texts comes naturally to her.

“I write music very quickly and easily, beautiful melodic lines and interesting arrangements,” said Schechter, who started out as a singer-songwriter and who still works in that idiom.

“I discovered after having some problems putting English words to my music that the words sounded weird. The music sounded like it’s supposed to have Hebrew words or something. And when I began looking for Hebrew words, they were a much more natural fit than the English words, which just were not always happening.

“The English words sometimes devalued the music, and the Hebrew words were elevating the music. So, depending on what the song was, certain music required this elevation, while some of my music didn’t -- some of my music was just calling out for me to talk.”

At first, Schechter viewed the option of adapting Hebrew texts to her melodies as an artistic “cop-out” of sorts. But once audiences started responding enthusiastically to her reworkings of such well-known texts such as “Lecha Dodi” and “Hamavdil” as well as more obscure ones, she realized that what comes naturally isn’t necessarily of lesser artistic value.

Schechter formed Pharaoh’s Daughter in 1995 after returning from a trip to the Middle East and Africa which included Morocco, Turkey, Central Africa, Egypt, Kurdistan and Israel. The New York-based group has built a following in New York, where it performs frequently in clubs including the Knitting Factory, Makor and the Living Room.

Pharaoh’s Daughter’s two recordings, “Daddy’s Pockets” and “Out of the Reeds,” reflect Schechter’s background and experiences. Schechter is unusual in that she comes from an extended family that includes both Ashkenazic, or Eastern European, and Sephardic, or Spanish, descent. Typically the two remain separate, but in Schechter’s case she literally embodies the Ashkenazic/Sephardic duality.

While heavily informed by her Jewish background, her music also shows the influence of her travels throughout the Middle East and Africa, where she spent the proverbial forty days wandering in the desert, soaking up the sounds of the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum and learning to play traditional music at the feet of musicians in Morocco and Turkey. Her bandmates also bring a menu full of world-beat influences to the table, including Indian, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles.

As a result, the music that comes out in Pharaoh’s Daughter “Out of the Reeds” is a melange or fusion in which Malian melodies meet Hasidic chant, Indian tabla music dances with klezmer, and African percussion propels King Solomon’s Song of Songs. It’s a natural fit, taking the Jewish texts back to their Middle Eastern origins, and Schechter is a compelling, insinuating vocalist who navigates the snakelike melodies with the acrobatic lure of a belly dancer.

Pharaoh’s Daughter is also a groove band of sorts, and the sextet of musicians all contribute background vocals as well as tabla, guitar, cello, oud, woodwinds and percussion.

After high school in Brooklyn, Schechter attended yeshiva in Israel for a short time, but returned to New York to study at Barnard College. While at Barnard she began slowly loosening her attachment to the strict observance of Jewish law in which she had been raised. By the time graduation rolled around, Schechter had decided that Orthodoxy was not for her, certainly not if she was going to live the life of a musician.

Schechter didn’t set out to make new Jewish music. Rather, she moved downtown and tried to make her mark as a singer-songwriter, albeit one with a penchant for Oriental minor melodies that probably betrayed her background.

Ironically, it was while struggling to make it on the folk scene writing songs about “emotional, spiritual and relationship problems,” some of which are found on “Daddy’s Pockets,” that Schechter was hired by a religious group to perform. Out of the necessity of having to come up with material for that program, and then in getting a job playing percussion at a synagogue, Schechter found herself embraced by the very community which she had half-heartedly tried to escape.

This time, however, she was equipped to function within the community on her own terms as an artist and musician. And unlike others who have broken free of the rigors of a strict religious upbringing, especially some women who find it sexist and oppressive, Schechter is not negative toward the world she left behind.

“I respect the system that works for them, and that’s fine,” she said. In fact, being back in that world reminds her of what she loved about it as a child. “It connects me to a special memory I have of growing up, the good part, why I thought it was so beautiful and why it was so difficult to leave the devotional, spiritual, pure place,” she said.

“People have this misconception that women don’t sing in the Orthodox world. They sing from their guts, from every bone in their body. They do it together, in groups and in choirs. Women get together and sing, they really have a connection to the music in that community.”


[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Nov. 3, 2000. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2000. All rights reserved.]


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