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.
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.
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.
"Generally when people do Hasidic music in any way, it's the Hasidic music that becomes the most dominant," says Moishe Rosenfield, a booker who has worked with Pharaoh's Daughter for years. "In Basya's case, and in the case of Pharaoh's Daughter, the Hasidic melodies are the starting point, but only the starting point – the styles come from a variety of backgrounds, and in the end, it's all projections of mood and emotion."
For Schechter, the path from regular old folk musician to purveyor of iconoclastic world music has been a long one, involving more than a few stumbles and setbacks. It began with a series of backpacking expeditions in the '90s – to Turkey, Africa, the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, and beyond.
In each far-flung locale, Schechter made it her mission to pick up the traditional instruments and to learn a few of the local tunes.
In Morocco, she played the oud, a stringed instrument popular in Arabic culture. In Zimbabwe, she pounded out a few tunes on a marimba. In Turkey, she gamely tried out the saz, a long-necked lute that emits a scratchy, high-pitched hum.
Schechter brought back the instruments to New York when she could, and when she couldn't, she attempted to evoke their sound, once even tuning her guitar so that it began to sound like what she describes as a "cross between a saz and an oud." Meanwhile, Schechter worked to incorporate a range of material from the ultra-Orthodox world – chants, prayers, ancient songs.
She switched from English to Aramaic and Hebrew, channeling the insistent warble of an extended prayer. One of the most beautiful songs on "Out of the Reeds," a Pharaoh's Daughter album released in 2000, is a modernized take on "Lecha Dodi," a haunting tune typically sung at sunset, to usher in Shabbat, the day of rest. Schechter's rendition begins with a stark and lonely vocal line, sung over a spare instrumentation; the song gains momentum slowly but steadily, finally closing with the soft rattle of a tambourine.
Around the time "Out of the Reeds" was released, Pharaoh's Daughter was the subject of a front-page profile in the influential paper The Jewish Week. It was a turning point for the band, which until then had toiled in semiobscurity.
"We were getting hired to play in all these different venues – Jewish community centers, Jewish festivals, synagogues," Schechter remembers. "And we started making money. We were actually getting paid. We got picked up by a booking agent, and the audiences were bigger – I felt like we had tapped into something."
Schechter credits the band's early successes in part to the realization that she had to return to the world she had grown up in. She had to mine the songs of her childhood. In short, she had to go home again.
Meg Okura, a classically trained violinist and a member of Pharaoh's Daughter, says she understands Schechter's decision to return to her roots – as a native of Japan, Okura has become used to audiences expecting her to bring some vital part of her heritage with her onto the stage.
"Basya had to find her niche," Okura says. "When you hear her earlier work, you realize it's quite different than what she does now. She's tapped into her environment and her history and circumstance in a way that she didn't used to, and it works incredibly well."
Okura, who has toured with Pharaoh's Daughter for years while maintaining her own solo career – she has just released a new album called "Naima" – says that the band gives all its members a place to play, to blend influences, to explore, to be themselves.
"Pharaoh's Daughter is ... unique in that you've got a group of musicians that wouldn't necessarily cross paths in any other situations," Okura says. "Most bands in New York work in a single genre, and there's not a lot of blending. Pharaoh's Daughter has a violinist and a drummer and recorder player, and not only is she a recorder player, but she's a specialist in the Baroque recorder. I find that fascinating."