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Pharaoh's Daughter lead singer mines her ultra-Orthodox roots for melodies

Basya Schechter, lead singer of Pharaoh's Daughter, draws on her ultra-Orthodox childhood to craft songs for the band.

By Matthew ShaerCorrespondent / August 5, 2010

The band Pharaoh’s Daughter (Basya Schechter, center) performs at Joe’s Pub in New York City.

John Mazlish


New York

Basya Schechter got her start the way many musicians do in this city: strumming a guitar in smoke-filled clubs for pennies on the gig, writing songs about heartache and heartbreak and love, howling into a tinny public address system until her voice went hoarse and the lights went down. This was back in the mid-1990s, when jam bands such as Phish and Strangefolk were getting plenty of mainstream radio play, and half of downtown New York was doing the drippy, meandering, overblown Grateful Dead revival thing.

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Schechter was making less than $20,000 a year. She had no health insurance. She worked an array of part-time jobs to help pay the rent: traveling diaper saleswoman, a dog walker for a drug dealer in Brooklyn, a temp at a midtown office. She spent the extra cash on new guitar strings and travel.

In the evenings, she played in a series of bands, first with a loose collective of friends and acquaintances, and then with a outfit that she dubbed Pharaoh's Daughter, a reference to the wife of the biblical King Solomon. (Some scholars believe that the Pharaoh's daughter, who is not identified by name in the Hebrew scriptures, was called Bithya, an ancient variant on the word Basya.)

Schechter was raised ultra-Orthodox Jewish in the Boro Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she attended yeshiva and studied Talmudic theology. She sang from a young age with her father – and even accompanied him on his rounds as troubadour on the Orthodox Jewish singles' circuit. In high school, she choreo­graphed dance routines to traditional Jewish songs.

But those early Manhattan performances in the '90s bore only the slightest trace of the Hasidic musical aesthetic of her youth. Mostly, she was toying with a straightforward rock and folk sound – big chords, big melodies, just the right amount of feedback and fuzz.

"I had a lot of angsty, difficult things to work out," Schechter remembered recently. "That became a big part of my musical process. I was singing all in English – this was a time when I just wasn't very connected [to] my childhood anymore. I was trying to disconnect the part of me that was religious. You could say that I really did just start as your basic singer-songwriter."

She remains a singer-songwriter in spirit, but these days, Schechter, who lives in Tribeca, not far from her favorite Greenwich Village haunts, is better-known as a bandleader, a revivalist, and a musician capable – to quote Jeff Tamarkin, a music critic for The Boston Phoenix – of achieving a "divine communion of the spiritual and the terrestrial."

In 10 years, Schechter has helped grow Pharaoh's Daughter from regional favorite to global powerhouse – a sprawling outfit, tethered by a core of seven veteran New York musicians capable of drawing sellout crowds from Canada to Krakow. (Or attracting audiences in even smaller venues: Once, Schechter arranged for the band to play on a dirt road deep in the Amazonian jungle, somewhere near Brazil's border with Colombia. The show was a success.)

The lineup currently includes a range of musicians, from the recorder player Daphna Mor, to the Israeli drummer Yuval Lion, and the accordionist Uri Sharlin. Pharaoh's Daughter has released five well-received albums, including the 2007 collection "Haran," each of which blends hypnotic, looping Hasidic melodies with a range of international influences, including African ballads and Indian ragas.