PRI’s The World is one of the best news magazine shows on radio. One of the things I like about it is it gives regular prominent coverage to cultural news including world music. Today, I was driving to the farmer’s market with my son and I heard a story about Pharaoh’s Daughter come on the air. I know about the group because I read about it somewhere on the web and then visited the group’s website and listened to the music. When I heard The World’s interview with the group’s founder and lead singer, Basya Schechter, I was delighted.
It’s a little hard to describe Pharaoh’s Daughter’s musical style. Most American Jewish music consists of songs we all learned in Hebrew school. While some of the melodies can be quite lovely, it’s generally tired old tunes you’ve sung a thousand times in a dirge-like tempo.
This group is definitely not your father’s Jewish music. In fact, Schechter appears to have garnered her first notice by performing with the Bnai Jeshurun music ensemble that accompanies Shabbat services. This synagogue is one of New York’s most innovative and popular ones. Her music attempts to reinvigorate and almost reinvent American Jewish music. It incorporates an Israeli element in that many of the songs are sung in Hebrew. But there are also North African and Arabic musical influences. I liken her to an American Jewish Lorena McKennitt (with not quite as impressive pipes). Schechter eschews the old melodies we grew up with as children in favor of a reimagination of these same tunes with new sounds and beats. One of the coolest examples of this is her Yah Ribon (hear it from the new album, Haran), which every Hebrew school child has sung scores of times. But you won’t recognize Yah Ribon in Schechter’s version. She’s turned it inside out and upside down. It’s brand new again and it grooves with a strong Middle Eastern sound. There is also a strong element of spiritual yearning in all the songs.
The World did a wonderful interview (audio file) with Schechter in which she placed herself well within an American Jewish and world music context. Here’s some of what she said:
Basya Schechter hails from New York, but as a teenager she left the city and the safety of her religious community. Schechter hitchhiked throughout Turkey and Africa.
She studied marimba in Zimbabwe. Learned to play the saz in Turkey. And fell in love with the oud while in Morocco. We’ll let Basya Schechter tell the rest of her story.
I grew up in neighborhood called Borough Park in Brooklyn. It’s the largest Orthodox community in the world. I had spent all of my childhood in all girl schools, all girl camps, in a neighborhood where you could only play with the girls. And when I was 15 I had discovered through friends that there was a camp going to Israel and it was co-ed. So, I ended up on this tour where I wore shorts for the first time. And I was exposed to boys and music that I hadn’t heard growing up. And I had a boyfriend for the first time in my life and he played me Led Zeppelin and the Doors. And it’s that combination of this new experience of a cool boy who’s liking me and then introducing me to all this music I hadn’t heard before. And I’d listen over and over.
I would sit there with something like “Black Dog” and I would try and count the rhythm of that piece and I’d learn the melody note by note.
So many things go into making an album, so many experiences. The way you compose the pieces and it’s also the choices you make in how you’re going to create the sonic sound scape.
The song “Ka Ribon” I composed on the saz. The text is all about devotion to God. I wanted to bring something very ancient, something from a Kabbalistic world. I wanted to bring those words into the present day. I wanted to bring the sounds of places that I’ve gone to, the things that I’ve been exposed to, and the things I feel spiritually and mystically in the present day, but with words written over 800 years ago.
I did leave the Orthodox community when I was between 18 and 22. I don’t have that much of a relationship inside the community, but I have a strong relationship with people who are struggling with being in the community. I’m part of a group of people who left Orthodoxy or left Hasidis. There are places we go to and we all meet. Those people are definitely attracted and connected to the work.
One of the things that moved me most about the interview was Schechter’s discussion of her relationship with Orthodox Judaism. As she described what it was like to go from a sheltered Orthodox upbringing to listen to Led Zeppelin for the first time, I could hear the cacophonous crash between competing cultures and visions. In fact, many of us first discovered rock music in similar ways and it had similarly tumultuous effects on us all. But Basya’s background would’ve made that clash even more severe.
I have great empathy for the path she’s trod from young Orthodox Jewish girl to emancipated, but tradition-engaged Jewish woman.
Please Note: This mp3 blog showcases my love for traditional music. I hope you come, listen, enjoy, and follow the links to buy the music. Such good deeds reward the artists I feature here and allow me to cover a small portion of the expense involved in maintaining this blog.