The Electric Matzoh-Ball Acid Test 

Judaic fusion band Pharaoh's Daughter plays Forsyth Park

LOVERS OF UNUSUAL, EXOTIC AND EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC should be thrilled to hear that one of the most acclaimed contemporary world-beat groups will make a rare appearance this weekend in Forsyth Park as part of the local Jewish community's annual Jerusalem Concert for Peace.

Held in tandem with the Israel at 60 Celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, this year's free, public event features activities and entertainment for children and adults, such as interactive games, multi-media exhibits and historical displays as well as ethnic foods and crafts.

The live music component of the celebration includes is sponsored by the City of Savannah, and includes performances by the Savannah Children's Choir, the children of Rambam Day School and Shalom School, the Mickve Israel Choir and others. However, it's the headliner which will likely draw the most attention.

Pharaoh's Daughter is a New York-based quintet that fuses traditional Israeli and Jewish folk music traditions with modern world-beat, jazz fusion and psychedelic rock. They've toured as far away as Egypt, London, Greece and South America, and were a featured act at NYC's prestigious Summerstage in Central Park. Their latest CD, Haran, is being called their finest yet.

click to enlarge Pharaoh's Daughter
  • Pharaoh's Daughter

Led by vocalist and guitarist Basya Schechter (who's been featured both independently and with her band on a handful of albums released through avant-garde saxman John Zorn's esoteric, Judaic indie label Tzadik Records) the band has been universally hailed by critics as one of the finest and most innovative groups of their kind on today's scene. Schechter, who's said to radiate an intoxicating, Pan-Mediterranean sensuality, uses alternate tunings which allow her guitar to sound much like the Arabic oud and the Turkish saz, and the group's songs draw on odd time signatures, droning, African-derived trip-hop grooves and emotion-drenched vocals that have been described as sounding like an Arabic version of the great PJ Harvey.

Schechter spoke with me from the desolate cliffs of Montauk, J.J., where she heads each summer to read, write songs and meditate.

Thanks for working so hard to contact me.

Basya Schechter: It's my pleasure. I'm so glad we could finally talk! I'm on a beach with no sun at the end of the world. I'm wearing two coats, three sweaters and a hat. It's absolutely beautiful where I am, but it's completely cold. The ocean is chilled, beautiful and empty.

It sounds like a very desolate scene.

Basya Schechter: Right now it does feel pretty desolate. In the high season you keep running into surfers, but the water's freezing now, so there's nobody here. I'm pumping quarters into the only pay phone for miles, and I'm almost out of money!

How did you wind up in Montauk?

Basya Schechter: It's a place I've been visiting since I was in college. I refresh myself here by the ocean through reading and writing and composing music.

Are you familiar with the conspiracy theories about mind control and psychological warfare research which have surround the Montauk Air Force base for decades?

Basya Schechter: Very much so! That's because I accidentally ran into a military fort here on a Spring break trip years ago. We were out on the cliffs with nowhere to sleep, but we stumbled upon this strange little concrete building and slept there for the night. A few years later I started heading there every summer, and I learned a lot about these abandoned forts over the next ten years. I'd go out there with just my sleeping bag, some books and a guitar, and be alone with just my writing, reading and playing. I stay in one of the smaller ones that's hard to see. Every once in a while you'll come upon kids out there having drinking parties, but that's rare. They're weird structures: just concrete buildings with no windows or doors.

That must be a great place to concentrate.

Basya Schechter: Yes. You're out in the brambles in these forts, and then you can climb down the cliffs and find yourself in what folks call the most intense surfing area. That's because the waves and the wind there can be so powerful. I'm told that Paul Simon lives somewhere out here as well.

Have you or your band ever toured as far South as Savannah before?

Basya Schechter: Well, we've been farther South, but I wouldn't really call it 'The South' because it was Florida. (laughs) It seems so different down there, you know?

Well, Florida is its own animal. In a way, it's like that board game Clue, where you'll go in one room and there's a secret passage that'll pop you out in another wing of the old mansion. I think there's a trapdoor in New Jersey that thousands of people a year step into and emerge mysteriously in Florida.

Basya Schechter: (Laughs) That's it! Exactly. Can I use that one myself?

Sure. You have my full permission. (laughs) So, how often does Pharaoh's Daughter tour?

Basya Schechter: We were really busy from November till March with different configurations of the band. We were out for about two weeks of each month and then had a lot of one-off dates in March and April. We'll have three big shows in May and be on the road the entire month of July, but we have absolutely nothing booked in June. So, we don't have a particular schedule, per se.

Are you able to play music full-time?

Basya Schechter: All of us in Pharaoh's Daughter are in a bunch of different bands. It's kind of made up of band leaders! This is my main musical thing, but I also play at a synagogue every Friday and on Saturday mornings I teach a class there that I developed in college.

Is that at a large synagogue?

Basya Schechter: It's a very large place. We have two services each night. But it's not my own personal synagogue.

You were raised an Orthodox Jew, correct?

Basya Schechter: Ultra-Orthodox.

Are the other members of this band heavily involved in Judaism?

Basya Schechter: Not at all! (laughs) The only time Meg Okura is involved is when I make here sing in Yiddish. She actually writes out the words phonetically in Japanese characters so that she can sing along! Some of the members are affiliated with Judaism and some are not. I am probably the most affiliated, and I'm in a very strong relationship with my affiliation. In some respects I keep running away from it and then returning. (laughs)

Some of your music has been released through John Zorn's Tzadik label, which specializes in avant-garde and experimental music — much of which has a connection to Jewish history or culture. Do you have a strong musical connection to Zorn? Do you and he ever collaborate?

Basya Schechter: Not on a regular basis, but I'm always working on projects that may or may not fit his label, so we're in discussions about whatever I'm working on.

Is Tzadik a good match for this band?

Basya Schechter: Well, our last record's not on Zorn's label, but they're very upright and have a respectable catalog. I think when you're straddling some of the musical lines that those of us who play world music do, you're constantly in a zone where you're not sure exactly where to be. Pharaoh's Daughter has gone through some changes since we did our first album in 1999. Two were made under that name and one under my own name. But the music we play is arranged by the people I am playing with at the time.

Has the internet been helpful for finding fans of this sort of music?

Basya Schechter: Somewhat. I'm actually not in touch with that end of things. We have others who do that for us!

What will your Savannah show be like?

Basya Schechter: It runs about an hour and will be drawn mostly from my own work. It's kind of like a cross between psychedelic and Middle Eastern music with a lot of world beat influences. That all comes together in new compositions of our own making that include lyrics drawn from ancient biblical texts. We try to bring out certain nuances in those writings through our own melodies. Think of it as a collage of many different languages all celebrating a country (Israel) that is home for a people who didn't always have a home, and who come from many different cultures.

Well, historically, as Jews have been dispersed around the world, elements of their music, their history and their art have been assimilated into a very wide range of genres.

Basya Schechter: Exactly. I find it very interesting to have a form of music that represents so many different places in the world where a certain group of people have travelled and settled. So, myself and the band are drawing on all of those influences, as well as a distinctly New York City kind of sensibility. We do play a few traditional numbers, but most of what we'll do in Savannah will be original. We're not so much interpreters of old music. We're really into new stuff of our own that draws on those traditions.

Will the lineup for this show be the same as the one that made your most recent CD?

Basya Schechter: Yes, with the exception that our friend Benny Koonyevsky will be filling in on drums, and we'll be without our percussionist. He can't be there because he's out on tour with Moby.

Maybe you can convince Moby to come sit in on your next album.

Basya Schechter: Yeah! (laughs) That would be something, wouldn't it?

How did this Savannah gig come about?

Basya Schechter: I believe the man in charge of this show is actually Israeli, and we're fairly well-known in that world. I mean, if you're looking for a modern band playing contemporary music which references the Jewish experience, we're definitely on your radar. Plus, we're represented by one of the largest booking agencies which specializes in Jewish music.

Celtic musicians see a big increase in their gigs every March, gearing up for St. Patrick's Day. Has the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel impacted your live appearance schedule as well?

Basya Schechter: Yeah, I guess so. April and May have been especially blessed. I think you also have to keep in mind that because of the way the Jewish calendar is structured, it's very fertile in terms of holidays — especially compared to some other religions. There are always all sorts of festive events going on. Truth is, as a musician, you can actually get pretty comfortable in that world just by playing shows based on the Jewish calendar! (laughs)

Does this band do a lot of shows unrelated to Jewish-themed events or organizations?

Basya Schechter: We do clubs and have toured Europe. We basically play under the umbrella of world music and have been included in a lot of festivals devoted to the cause of peace. Sometimes, it seems like we're 'the Jewish group' in the larger context of bringing people of many cultures together to promote unity and tolerance.

When you started this band almost a decade ago, did you envision the level of recognition and success you've now achieved?

Basya Schechter: You know, I think you have your dreams and some sort of impetus that keeps you moving forward. You write, you travel and you express yourself by creating a cohesive thing. You just keep going. I don't necessarily think I had a clear idea of anything. (laughs) I just knew that I wanted to play. The music itself evolved. In the beginning, we only played songs with English lyrics, but which had an obvious Middle Eastern influence.

At what point did you start incorporating different languages and dialects?

Basya Schechter: The first record was strictly in English, but by the time we made the second one, I had already left the Jewish community in a strong way, and I felt happy to be outside of that world and involved with more generally-themed festivals. Then Jewish Week newspaper somehow found me and did a nice, full-page article. Almost immediately, I started getting calls from Jewish groups offering me good gigs, which had not happened before. They all asked if I sang anything Jewish. I had so many songs which had developed over the course of my travels to so many different countries, and the truth was that those melodies didn't sound right with English lyrics. They worked much better with texts I had memorized as a child in Yeshiva School. So I moved more into that direction.

So the words to Pharaoh's Daughter's songs are often drawn directly from old texts, while the modern music itself is original.

Basya Schechter: Exactly. You have to understand that the tradition of Jewish music has always been to take words or prayers from tradition and fuse it with the musical influences of whatever community the Jews were living in at the time. Whatever cultural experience they were having is reflected in the songs. The music itself becomes a window into the Jews' lives, as seen through the Bible, the Kabbalah, and in so many other ways.

Do you feel your band —and Jewish music in general— is gaining in popularity?

Basya Schechter: Well, it's hard to tell. But I think a lot of people are experiencing some of the same things right now. This is a very vital time period for Jewish art. Take Matisyahu. He mixed his Jewish identity with rap and reggae. Then you have Josh Nelson, who's a gospel singer. Pharaoh's Daughter is a psychedelic fusion band mixing that with a Jewish influence. There's so much going on in terms of that.

Several years from now, will there be a group of bands who'll cite the innovative approach your band is taking as a key influence, or has that already happened?

Basya Schechter: Do I see us being influential? I think maybe eight or nine years ago we might have influenced artists who didn't necessarily sound like us, but who were looking for ways to connect their musical identity with their Jewish heritage. We came out at a time when there weren't many people doing this. I can see where people might have seen what we did as an approach that would work for them. I can only hope we get stronger at what we do, and continue to create music people really want to hear. We try to sound beautiful while representing something listeners can relate to and learn from.

Your band is often described as being heavily influenced by psychedelic music, and you've referenced that in this conversation. That can refer to drug-oriented folk music as well as experimental garage-rock. What part of psychedelic genre made the biggest impression on Pharaoh's Daughter?

Basya Schechter: I think —especially in our most recent recordings— we've been adding a lot of electric guitar, as well as Rhodes electric piano and some elements of electronica, without it seeming like electronic music. Bands like The Doors and Pink Floyd heavily influenced the sound of Haran. Now, you may not be able to hear anything that directly reminds you of either of those bands, but it's in there. A lot of psychedelic music is characterized by being very 'open', and our own music is moving in a more open direction as well. There are places in our songs where things are very arranged, and other places where they are extremely open. We draw from those free and experimental elements, as well as something cyclical and meditative.

Some bands are known for making great records, but putting on perfunctory concerts, while others make albums that are more like simple documents of their songs, but win over most fans through challenging and unpredictable live shows. Which category best fits Pharaoh's Daughter?

Basya Schechter: Some people really love or live shows, while others prefer the records. Some fans will swear by both! Our live shows are so different. They are always spontaneous and can be rude or sweet at various points. No two are ever the same.

Jerusalem Concert For Peace

Where: Forsyth Park

When: 12 - 4 pm, Sun., May 18

Cost: FREE

Info: pharaohsdaughter.com, savj.org


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